Seriously, this is a question that inevitably comes up for anyone looking for writing advice. Tim and I knock it back and forth throughout this episode. The transcript is below and for those who wish to listen along, you can here:
[0:00:01.0] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. My name is Tim Grahl, I’m your host and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me soon is Shawn Coyne, he is the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with 25 plus years’ experience and he is helping me learn how all of this story telling stuff works.
In this episode we talk about where good book ideas actually come from and how you can come up with them and then we dive into character development and how you can create characters that are realistic even when they’re characters that are nothing like you and I have a lot of questions around that and he answered them really well.
So I’m excited to share this with you, this is a great episode, I know you’re going to love it so let’s jump in and get started.
[0:00:48] TG: So I want to talk to day a little bit about where story ideas come from and from what I’ve learned just reading about other people, this is like the question writers hate the most. So I figure I’ll ask it. In your experience writing yourself, working with so many writers, where do these ideas come from and how do you know when you’ve landed on one that’s worth pursuing?
[0:01:19.2] SC: I get this question a lot and it’s a very good one. I’m going to answer it by recommending a really terrific American Masters edition that had Philip Roth and the reason why I’m going to recommend this is that Philip Roth, he’s a preeminent writer in American Letters and everybody talks about what an amazing literary figure he is and what was really great about this American Masters, it’s about an hour long documentary about him and he’s basically speaking the entire time.
It’s like getting a direct contact with a terrific writer, and the question came up. Now his famous book, the one that really took him to the stratosphere was a novel called Portnoy’s Complaint. It’s a classic novel which was pretty revolutionary in its time in the 1970’s because it was a very frank and a funny look at sexuality among other things, it was a coming of age story.
In the documentary, they’re asking Roth the question that you just asked me, “How did you come to write this book, where do you get your ideas, et cetera?” What was fascinating to me about it was that Roth was in this place, he had just divorced his first wife and things weren’t going very well for him and he hit a wall of writer’s block. In the 1960’s he wrote a collection of stories, one of which was called Goodbye Columbus which became a terrific movie, it’s a great story, it’s very much about his existence as a younger man.
Anyways, so they asked him, “How did you come to write Portnoy’s Complaint and he said, well, I was going out with a lot of friends because I was really depressed and they were all remarking about how funny I was and I never really thought myself as a very funny person but I was under analysis at that time, he was seeing a counsellor or a psychologist and I’d tell them stories about experiences with the psychiatrist and what I was going through and they thought it was hilarious.
I was at this place in my life where I had writer’s block, I didn’t know what to write and I figured, “What am I going to do?” And what he decided to do was, we talked about narrative device a couple of episodes ago and what he basically did is he solved the problem of narrative device and he solved the problem of his writer’s block by looking at his life in terms of a story.
He said to himself, “In my own private life, I met this crossroads and people are finding all of my experiences about going to the psychiatrist very funny. Why don’t I write a book where I can be very honest and talk about things that are off the top of my head that are very interesting to me and what I’ll do it I will write as if I am my lead character is talking to his psychiatrist?”
That’s what Portnoy’s Complaint is, it’s this brilliant examination of narrative device, it was a revolutionary idea that the entire story is told as if the lead character is speaking to a psychiatrist. The reason why I bring this up as an answer to your question about where do you get your ideas is that Roth, instead of extrapolating and going external and thinking about very large what if’s.
Like, “What if there was an earthquake in Los Angeles on the 4th of July?” For example. He went internally and he went in his own life experience and he tried to figure out a way to tell a story that was personal to him, that other people had said to him that, “This is interesting to me, you are a funny guy, why don’t you write in this way?”
This is the way writers often find a way out of their writer’s block and find an idea that is so specific to them that they’re capable of sitting down and writing in that sort of very heady banging out 5,000 words a day, 10,000 words a day and not even really thinking about it. That sweet spot that all writers always love when they sit down at 9 o’clock in the morning and they lift their head up and it’s 6 o’clock at night and they’ve got 12,000 words of copy in front of them and it didn’t seem that difficult to write.
Of all the writers that I’ve worked with, they always say this. “There was this funny guy I met a long time ago and I decided a novel based upon what he would have experienced if he were in a certain situation.” When you’re looking for an idea, think of things in your own personal experience, that sort of zing you internally and make you get butterflies and think, “Oh boy, I’m not really sure if anybody would really want to read about that specific element of my life.”
Because these are the things that are most passionate and powerful to you personally when you sit down to write them. Here, I’m just going to give you another quick story about Tom Wolfe. Now Tom Wolfe is the famous new journalism writer and he was just a regular beat reporter for newspapers for years, and then there was a newspaper strike in the 1960’s and he had to get a job because he was broke. And he got Esquire to send him to Los Angeles to do a story about custom made cars.
So he was so excited, he goes out there and he takes all these great notes, he’s got notebook after notebook of these notes of all these experiences he’s had, looking at these custom made cars. But then he sits down to write the piece and he can’t bang it out. He has to call his editor and apologize and say, “I’m not going to make my deadline, I don’t know what to do. I just can’t seem to write this piece.”
The editor takes pity on him and he said, “Look, we already spent $10,000 getting photographs of all these cars. Just write me a letter and give me all of your research and I’ll get some hack in the back room to bang out a story based upon your research.” So Wolfe freed from the shackles of having to produce some finished, perfect piece of work, he sits down and he writes 40 pages, single spaced of his experiences that are just fantastic and hilarious. It freed him to be himself.
So he sends that to the editor and it’s like, “Dear Bob, here is what happened when I went to Los Angeles,” and from that point forward, the editor read it and he said, “This is a great piece.” It was sort of Tom Wolf’s introduction to being himself. The way to find the best ideas is psychologically to learn how to be yourself and once you’ve start to learn and trust yourself in the way you write naturally and the more experience you have doing that, the more these ideas that happen to you in your own personal life will come to you and you will be able to create things that you never imagined before.
[0:09:12.1] TG: Now, on writing Stephen King talks a ton about “telling the truth” and I don’t know, I kind of had this picture of like the tortured writer I guess in my head of like they’re pulling from these horrible things that happened in their life and they share those truthfully on the page. How prevalent is that in actual writing? You see the movies and people turn these horrible stories into a book or something like that. Is that a prevalent way because then I think about, like I went through that master class with James Patterson and I don’t think he’s tortured over his writing. You know?
[0:09:59.8] SC: No, he’s having fun.
[0:10:01.9] TG: Yeah. Like I guess I wonder, because now I’m keeping a journal of book ideas and things that pop in my head and I’m just struggling with like, “Okay which ones are worth the time and which ones are not? And do I need to somehow pour the tortured parts of my soul into my books to make them good?”
[0:10:27.2] SC: I don’t necessarily think that’s true. I think trauma is a nice well to go to if you’re struggling with creating conflict in a particular scene or if you need a climactic moment in a particular act or in your three part structure and you need a big bang moment. I’ll bring another story here; Mike Judge. Now Mike Judge is the creator of Bevis and Butthead. He’s also the creator of King of the Hill.
Mike Judge was — he was raised like a lot of us were, he got a degree in mathematics, he became an engineer, he was working at some sort of engineering firm and he actually created that wonderful movie Office Space. I mean it’s just hilarious the stuff that Mike Judge has created. I was listening to him on Howard Stern a couple of weeks ago and Howard Stern had asked him, “How did you come up with Bevis and Butthead? That’s just so out of the blue. Where did you get those voices?”
And so Judge says, “Well there was this really funny moment in high school where there was a new teacher came into the building and it was — she was a former Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader.” And he said that one of the very strange guys in this class was just overwhelmed by this arrival of this beautiful woman.
[0:11:57.4] TG: Stroke of luck.
[0:11:58.3] SC: Yeah, exactly. This guy had this very nervous laugh. So Mike Judge thought it was so funny and he just sort of lodged it in the back of his brain and he said to himself, and Mike Judge is a wonderful mimic. He just put that on the back of his brain and like three years later, he was coming up with this idea of Bevis and Butthead which is sort of these two high school losers who draw cartoons during school and are kind of goofballs.
When he was creating these cartoons that laugh of that nervous laugh of that kid the Bevis laugh came to Mike Judge and he said, “Oh that’s definitely Bevis. I’m going to use that personal experience of that strange guy in the front of the class who was overwhelmed by his excitement by this teacher and I’m going to put that to use in my art.”
Mike Judge is not someone who is looking at trauma, he’s looking at the funny comedic elements of life but they’re often traumatic. You don’t have to sit around and walk around as a tortured artist and try and plumb the depths of your soul in order to inspire you to tell a good story. What you need to do is become engaged. If you become engaged and you think a certain thing is interesting or funny, you have to trust that.
Because we all experience things every day in our life, we walk down the street and we see a zillion different things and there are certain things that lodge in your brain that are interesting to you and you don’t know why. The fact that you have a notebook now and you’re writing things down, that’s a really good idea because we don’t always remember those funny moments when somebody’s trying to get a cup of coffee at Starbucks and ends up sneezing and snot goes all over the — all those funny things.
You can put to use in your fiction and when Stephen King talks about telling the truth, that’s what he’s talking about. He is saying to himself, “How can I use my personal experiences in ways that are truthful to the story. You bring the truth everyday experience to your story telling, that doesn’t mean that you just go out and tape records somebody’s conversation and call that dialogue. That is not dialogue that is people talking.
A lot of writers enjoy the Sturm and Drang of their trauma and if you’re a writer and that’s why you want to write to show the world all the difficult things that you’ve experienced, you should probably seek professional health before you waste a lot of time being a writer. That doesn’t mean that if a certain thing has happened to you and you can meld it into a larger theme story about courage or about love or about jealousy or about power.
The smallest kernel of an instance in somebody’s life can create great works of art. Harold Pinter would write very small stories that had very global deep thoughts beneath them. I’m not sure if I’m helping you or not but I think the important thing is to notice what’s going on in your world.
To notice those moments that are interesting to you, I’m pretty confident other people will be interested in those moments too if you cherry pick those ideas and you put them and place them in specific spots in your story. Now, when I’m an editor and I’m going through somebody’s story and I discover a problem, I’ll generally try and offer a solution by using something in my own life.
Now, my life and your life are two completely different things but if I say to you, “Oh it’s like the other day when I was at the coffee shop and this happened.” You might not have experienced that but you’ll be able to say, “Oh yeah, that kind of reminds me of the time that I went to the beach with my son.”
That’s the way you can use those moments in your life to solve specific problems and if you have sort of an inventory of interesting little specific truthful anecdotes and people that you’ve known and strange little peccadillos of behavior that will add truth and meaning and specificity to your work. That’s what Stephen King was talking about I think.
[0:16:54.2] TG: Yeah, it’s interesting you say that, this is a little bit of a tangent but since we’ve been doing this podcast and learning all this stuff. I’ve taken to, when people ask me advice, I think of something that has happened, I tell the story and then I just don’t say anything else and have stopped trying to give specific advice and just tell whatever thing, story pops in my head and the other day, this guy, he’s going through a real tough time and he asked me specific advice on something. I was really nervous about, I didn’t feel like I should give advice in that situation.
I just told the story that I didn’t think really applied to it and he goes, “I should totally do X, Y, and Z,” which again had nothing to do with the story. I’m finding as you keep reiterating this power of story, I’m seeing it show up in every area of life is that I’ve just what’s ringing true in my overall personal life is that idea of trusting the reader, trusting the person on the other end. Just kind of opening up the space with the story so they can translate it into what they already know they should do.
[0:18:15.3] SC: Yes, that’s true.
[0:18:16.5] TG: Anyway. I’ve been thinking about the idea as you were talking about the idea of using these personal stories and thinking about how this applies to the character development thing because I’m like, “Well, I’ve never been a mass murderer, and so how do I put myself in the shoes of a mass murderer to then create a believable character?”
What kind of advice would you give there as far as like — like you’ve said over and over, 70% of readers are women so put women in your story. And I’m like, “I don’t’ know how women make decisions?” How should writers write characters that are truthful but are outside of their own personal experience that they can draw from?
[0:19:13.6] SC: Well, there’s two parts, to it; there’s your own personal experience and then there’s analytical research. And to be a wonderful writer is to be a student of psychology and what I’ve discovered is a lot of writers that I know who are very successful whether or not they’re multimillionaires is beside the point. I mean, successful story tellers.
They have somewhere in their past some psychology course and I write a lot about stuff that I think is interesting and a lot of what I think is interesting has to do with behavior, human behavior and that’s what psychology is. I write a lot about Maslow and the hierarchy of needs and I read a lot about Jung and Socrates and all those sort of deep thinking people from the past, Freud, who have thought about what motivates people to do what they do.
If you were to write and this is — the Story Grid analyzes The Silence of the Lambs. Now, when you read the silence in the lambs, Hannibal Lector and Buffalo Bill, Jane Gun are so believable as characters and it’s not because Thomas Harris is a serial killer.
[0:20:50.6] TG: That we know of.
[0:20:51.1] SC: He’s absolutely not, I have never met him but I do have — I do know people who do know him and they say he’s one of the most charming, nicest guys on the planet. But what is interesting about Thomas Harris is that before he became a novelist, he was a reporter for the associated press and at one point, he was working in Texas I think even before he go to the associated press and he was working the crime beat.
And so his experience was watching these crime scenes and going to these crime scenes and reporting them and he probably got fascinated by what motivated people to do such horrible things and he read a lot obviously. And Hannibal Lector is the consument psychiatrist, this is a guy who knows how people behave at a level that none of us could really understand. He’s also a sociopath, he’s a Nietzschean ubermensch who doesn’t believe in the everyday human notions of right and wrong.
Going off a bit of a tangent here but my point is that if you want to write believable and truthful characters, this is another element that Stephen King is talking about, you need to know what motivates people. You need to know and you have to do a little self-exploration. What motivates you? What’s interesting to you? How do you behave under certain situations?
The thing that I’ve discovered very recently that I think is fascinating is this: through a lot of psychological experiments, like the Stanford Prison Guard Experiment, The Stanley Milgram experiments on people shocking other people. What psychiatrists and psychologist have discovered over last hundred years is that behavior is contextual. Context is everything. We are all capable of doing very strange horrific, wonderful, all kinds of different behaviors based upon the context in which we are living.
When you’re writing a story and we’ve talked before about characterization and how if somebody were to read the Story Grid, they’re not going to get advice about how to create journals about your characters and their past histories and all that stuff. I firmly believe that character is action and that the actions of your characters are what define them. It’s not what they say, it’s what they do.
That is a crucial thing to remember as a writer. The other thing is contradiction, think about how your characters say one thing and do another because that is a big reveal to an audience, that’s a great way to establish a great turning point in scene where somebody is saying, “Oh I love you so much,” and then on the side, they’re cheating on the person or they’re lying to them in order to get something.
So behavior is contextual. This all goes back to doing some fun research where you get to read the deep thinkers, the Joseph Campbell’s, the Jung’s, the Socrates, Plato, Maslow and you can dip into this stuff when you need to. If you decide to write a crime thriller that features a serial killer, you can type “serial killer” into Google and find a lot of great articles and books that will tell you how a sociopath behaves and what their trigger points are. Then use that information in your story telling to setup those moments so that it’s truthful. People don’t just start being a serial killer overnight. Anyway.
[0:24:59.2] TG: Yeah, it was interesting because I just re-read the girl with the dragon tattoo and I remember thinking this at the beginning because Larson was a journalist and of course the lead character in his book is a journalist. Then I paid attention more in this re-reading and how so many of the things he talked about were things that he knew only because he was a journalist.
I forget specific examples but like some of the moral decisions that the main character had to make and then all of the different things he went through came because he was a journalist so he knew exactly what his main character was facing as a journalist. That reminds me again, I feel like we should just make it a rule to talk about the book on writing every time or I should, every time we do on to this because it reminds me that where King talks about if you’re a plumber and you like sci-fi, there’s a story somewhere and a plumber that works on a space ship.
Starting with these things that you already know so it reduces the — because all of this is about, for me, how do I set myself up for the most success early on? And I feel like picking something that I already know a good bit about is probably a good path because it reduces my margin for error. Like picking, like a career.
Early on when I was doing all my work on building online followings, I read a bunch of books about cult leaders because I figure, if you can get somebody like kill themselves for you, you could probably get them to buy your book. I remember doing all of this research and I started thinking like, “I know a lot about cults that most people, not everybody knows because I’ve done a lot of research on it.”
Just thinking like, “Are there ideas inside of things I already know?” Because that kind of gives me a leg up to make it believable because I’ll kind of subconsciously put things in that would be really hard for other people to do and it made me think of that when you talked about him putting that into Silence of the Lambs because he had already kind of lived in that as a crime reporter.
[0:27:26.1] SC: Right. I think that’s a very solid approach. I’m trying to think of an example that would support that. Here’s a fun example from a friend of mine Steve Pressfield. Now Steve, he documents it very clearly in The War of Art and turning pro and do the work. He didn’t collect a paycheck as a writer, he wrote for 30 years before he earned a penny as a writer and his first things that sold were screen plays and he worked with a terrific screen writer who wrote Alien, I’m forgetting his name.
Anyway, one day Steve sat down and he was like, “Oh jeez, I don’t know what I’m going to write today,” and what he discovered was, he knew a lot about golf and he grew up as a caddy in Westchester county and he was kind of a middle class kid who spent all summer carrying other guys clubs around the golf course and he learned a lot about golf and this idea came to him based upon his love of golf and it turned out to be his first novel The Legend of Bagger Vance which turned into a pretty big movie too but that’s speaks directly to what you’re talking about.
Steve knew the nuances of the game of golf in a way that he could use to tell a larger story. Now, The Legend of Bagger Vance isn’t really about golf although it’s great golf action. It’s about coming to an understanding of who you are. It’s based upon the Boga Da Vida which few people would ever really pick up unless they were Steve Pressfield. Steve, he’s the student of many different things. What he decided to do was to use his expertise and his passion and knowledge into two very, very different things and meld them in a way thematically.
He had his external genre is this great sports performance story, will the local hero, golf hero play as well as the two legendary golfers, Bobby Jones and I forget the golfer now? I’m not as young as I used to be. Anyway, what that tells me is that if you meld your passions to your goal of telling a very, very interesting story, you will bring a specificity. I always say this, you have to be very specific when you write your stories.
To use worlds that you know and we talked about this a couple of times when at the very beginning of the story, you want to introduce your reader to a world. If you know your world extremely well and it’s an attractive world that people will be interested in or there’s a large market for that to take it from the commercial point of view. What story out there hasn’t been told that people would love to read?
That’s always a question I like to ask as an editor or an agent or a writer, “What book, what story has not been written yet that people would love to read?” I think JK Rowling thought about this kind of question when she came up with Harry Potter. Then she used her passions and her expertise with legends and myths and British boarding schools and the class system in England and all of those things to — and she put all that, loaded all that stuff on this, “Oh I bet people would really love to read a wonderful tale about a wizard who goes to a wizard school.” And so those simple ideas, if you load your own stuff on top of them, they’d become more and more intricate and more and more interesting.
[0:31:50.9] TG: Yeah, it makes me think that like, if you can take kind of these stories that have been told over and over, the heroes journey or even this makes me think of the Martian as well where you have this kind of normal survival story and you just laid it on top of this author who is a complete Mars/space/science nerd.
I think of that like looking at what kind of story do I want to tell that exist out in the world and lots of different ways that really resonates with me and then what do I know really well already? Putting those together, is that like a good place to start?
[0:32:36.2] SC: I think it is and here’s another thought about it: if the world that you know very well seems unlikely to be interesting to anyone, don’t give up because it probably really is interesting to a lot of people if you put it in the right universe. As you mentioned earlier, the plumber, working on a space ship is an interesting idea. If you know plumbing and you know the systems of plumbing in a way that nobody else does and you know all the intricacies of hot and cold water, whatever it is. You take that information and you put it elsewhere as Andy Weird did in The Martian.
He knew all about physics, he knew about botany, he knew about mars and he is excited about it, he’s a nerd when it comes to NASA. He is like, “Oh boy, what if I were able to combine all these things that I know in a story about survival?” It doesn’t have to be this big, deep thing, it’s this how would somebody survive on Mars if they were running out of food, how would they make their own food?
As you mentioned earlier Tim, your expertise is extremely valuable externally, right? Everybody goes to say, “Tim, make me a Best seller, teach me how to market my stuff, teach me this.” But if your lead character’s a marketer in a story, is that necessarily so exciting and compelling? Maybe not but if you use what you know about marketing and convincing people to make a decision to buy something…
[0:34:33.0] TG: There’s lots of books on that world.
[0:34:34.8] SC: Exactly but your idea about the cult leader is fascinating because that’s what cult leaders do.
[0:34:43.1]TG: When you know something that well, you start knowing all of the moral implications of things that not people outside of the world don’t understand, you know all of the weird little decisions you have to make, you know all of this stuff in a way that, you know it, experientially as supposed to research can only take you so far than actually experiencing.
‘Cause I had another idea because my actual school training was in computer science and the programming for long time still do it. For a while I got into a little bit of trying to hack stuff and I did some things I’d rather not talk about in college. So I had this idea of like…
[0:35:31.0] SC: I think you’re the first person who had done things that didn’t want to talk about it at all.
[0:35:34.9] TG: Yeah, right. Computer related, low end crimes and I so had this idea of like, “Well what if you had this guy that was kind of a bored kind of husband 40 hour week cubicle job, not in a great marriage, kids who don’t really like him and this couple moved in next to him and he was able to hack into their router and their computers, what kind of mischief could you cause in a marriage by just messing with their electronics?”
And so I actually started sketching out this story idea of like, I was thinking like I know enough about this world that I could tell a very realistic story on top of a kind of sadistic, trying to mess with somebody’s marriage through their electronic devices.
[0:36:36.6] SC: That sounds pretty good.
[0:36:37.5] TG: That idea kind of popped back in my head of like, that’s something that I can write in a way that not everybody can write because I understand that world in a way that not everybody does.
[0:36:50.0] SC: That’s true.
[0:36:51.2] TG: You had said something a few minutes ago, I made a note about that I think is really important to talk about here. One of the great things about the internet and everybody being connected is that you can find all of the weird people that are interested in the same things you’re interested in, right?
[0:37:13.1] SC: Yes.
[0:37:13.7] TG: So there’s this great online store called, it’s “Geek” something and it’s like, all these really geeky star trek, toys and there’s t-shirts with coding, like programming jokes on them that you would only get if you knew programming and all these stuff and now if you took that store and made it a physical store in Lynchburg, Virginia where I used to live, it wouldn’t survive a month. There’s just not enough people to support that. But you put it online and you can get all of the geeks in one place.
I think that’s what’s really unique now about the Amazon marketplace and being able to reach all the readers in one place is you don’t have to write a book that’s mainstream enough to stay on the shelves of Barns & Noble, you can write these obscure, weird things and all you need is a thousand true fans kind of mantra from Kevin Kelly and you just have to find them and they can be anywhere. This idea that you can go like super niche and deep and weird and find a big enough audience to sustain you as a writer.
[0:38:28.9] SC: Yes, I’d agree with that. It’s all about managing your own expectations and the thing about story telling is, it’s such an intuitive craft that a lot of us just assume that it can be learned and perfected quickly and it can’t.
[0:38:48.4] TG: Even I think it’s important to define what intuitive means because we use this word and to me, I would be interested if you agree with this. To me, all the word intuitive means is, “I’ve shoved enough stuff in my head that my subconscious can put things together for me.” That’s what I see as intuitive because intuitive I think people use it and it’s like, intuitive means I pulled this out of the universe.
And what I’ve seen working with the creative people I do is what it means is, we’ve just talked about, these people that have studied all these random stuff and they just kind of shove it into their head over the years and then all of a sudden their subconscious puts these things together and hands it to them as a story. There’s a ton of work to becoming intuitive.
[0:39:41.3] SC: There is but there’s also a very clear evidence that children, babies are born with an understanding of narrative structure. There’s been psychological studies where as adults we tend to think that kids are stupid right? You can’t really tell them a sophisticated story because they’re really not going to get it. All they want to do is look at the giraffe and the play mobile above their crib.
The research indicates that these children, these babies from the moment they can learn how to speak, they understand story. When I say intuitive I mean in addition to what you’re talking about which I would say is more taking in everything and then doing an analysis of it and then letting your subconscious tell you, bring those things back to you is more integrative than intuitive. Intuitive to me means it’s within yourself and you did not specifically analyze works to program it into yourself. We’re splicing a word’s definition.
[0:41:04.6] TG: I think this is an important discussion because remember a few weeks ago we talked about how you were like, “Well just sit down and write and you can kind of look at it later,” and I was like, “No, I think there’s something to be said for like, kind of forcing yourselves to do a certain way so that over time it becomes normal,” and I’ve put that on top of when I work out and do this complicated lifts like it’s really excruciating to think about every movement but you have to do that long enough so you can do it without thinking. I get really uncomfortable with these conversations. I love this conversation but this idea that…
[0:41:53.1] SC: You’re born with it.
[0:41:54.0] TG: If I’m born with it, there’s nothing I can do about it.
[0:41:57.1] SC: You’re born with the ability to be a critical judge, that’s what I’m saying. You’re born, I can put something in front of you and you can tell me whether that story works or doesn’t work but you’re not going to tell me that the crisis point, there’s no crisis or that the writer didn’t put in an obligatory scene. What you’re going to say to me is that story didn’t work, that story does not move me, it did not interest me.
The masses, every human being on the planet has an instinctive intuitive understanding of when a story works and when it doesn’t work. Are there degrees of some people think something works and some people don’t? Absolutely. Everybody has a critical ability and they’re born with it to evaluate whether or not a story works. That doesn’t mean they can write a story that just means that they can criticize a story.
This is why everybody has an opinion about somebody’s creative work because they believe that because they were born with this — t’s like a thumb, they know how to use a thumb, they know whether or not a story works or not to a certain degree. I’m not arguing with you that it is a crucial craft methodology to learn story structure and to crank it into your brain’s repetition and grinding it, I think that’s absolutely true and I think our best writers always do that but there’s a yin and a yang, there’s the intuitive sense where something magically will connect in your brain that you didn’t anticipate.
For my judge, it was when he was saying to himself, “I want to be on MTV, I want to create a cartoon, what am I going to do next?” That strange laugh from that kid in high school came into his brain and he built a character based upon that strange moment in his past history. He was able to be inspired by that moment.
These are the mystical things that nobody can really explain, people call the muses, they call them inspirations, they call them what have you, some people call them biophysical accidents that some piece of dopamine landed in a strange neurotransmitter and fired unexpectedly, chaotically. It caused this terrific impulse for somebody to craft some creativity.
It doesn’t matter what you think of it, it is a moment that is inspirational. You become more inspired the more craft work that you do, the harder you work learning how to lift and clean and jerk a barbell, the more weight you’re going to be able to do eventually and it’s the same thing with story craft. This is why we do this podcast in the first place is to encourage people to do these work, to do this thinking, to think about the psychology and behavioral choices that people make under certain situations because you can use that information when you’re faced with a moment when you say, “My seventh scene has a terrible climax, what am I going to do about it?”
[0:45:36.2] TG: Yeah. That’s the thing, it really drives me crazy. There’s this kind of example I use because people talk about getting lucky and it drives me absolutely insane because so many writers talk about how they got lucky. I have this kind of example of like, “Okay, somebody tells a story of like, I just got lucky because I was at this conference and I just happen to get on the elevator with Tony Robins and we started talking and he invited me to do this thing and it totally transformed my business. I just got lucky. What people hear is…
[0:46:19.7] SC: That’s not lucky.
[0:46:20.7] TG: “Well I need to walk around and wait for luck to hit me.” When they hear that. What I think is this kind of false sense of humility we seem to love in the United States of like not actually taking credit for things. I’m like, “Okay, first of all you were at the conference and not sitting at home watching TV, second of all, you opened your mouth and talked to Tony Robins when most people would not say anything. Also, you had enough good ideas that you worked really hard on that you had something worthwhile to say to him when you opened your mouth to talk.
[0:46:56.0] SC: Right.
[0:46:56.6] TG: It’s like what I want, what I see and what I’ve seen in my own life is just like grinding away, sets you up so that when you get on the elevator with Tony Robins, it can actually turn into something useful instead of you just asking for his autograph.
[0:47:17.2] SC: Right, or to ask him to solve your problems for you which nobody can solve anybody else’s problems and nobody can solve somebody’s writing problems either. They have to be worked out internally, you have to grind on it, it doesn’t have to be this hellish, horrible experience. If you love to write, even if you don’t love it every single moment you’re writing.
It’s sort of like a friend of mine who goes to the gym all the time, somebody asked them, well how do you do that? He said, there’s only one thing worse than going to the gym and that’s not going to the gym. If that’s the attitude you have about your work and if you’re a writer or creative person, we all understand this.
If you don’t do your art, if you don’t put some time into it, every single day, even if it means taking 10 minutes in going into the car and thinking about something, you don’t feel right, you just don’t feel like your day was very productive. Even if you did all the laundry in the house and you cleaned it and you took the dog for the walk for 10 blocks.
If you did not have a moment where you started figuring out and piecing together some creative thought, you just feel like you blew it that day. All of these moments, this is about training yourself to trust your instincts and then analyze the hell out of them and say, well that isn’t going to work for this, I’m going to file that thing and maybe my experience as a marketer isn’t going to be the right element to put in to this character.
I’m going to save that bit or that really funny thing that happened to me at that conference, I’ll save that for the third act, I don’t want to bring that out on the first half. I agree with you Tim, I think a lot of people think, a lot of people contact me and they say, can you fix my book? Can you give me advice, can you teach me how to be a writer and I can do up to a degree but if you’re not going to put your bottom in the chair and the work, I don’t really have much to give you, to offer you. It’s like Tony Robins, he can’t help you in an elevator, he’d be the first one to tell you that.
[0:49:55.9] TG: It’s interesting because I also think there’s also around setting yourself up, it’s funny you used that gym analogy. I’ve been working out consistently for about four years and I’m 34. I spent most of my 20’s getting really overweight and out of shape. In fact, a buddy of mine found this picture of me like when I was like at my biggest and I was holding a ham sandwich when he took a picture of me.
I spent my entire 20’s doing all of this — I was like, “Okay, I’m going to start running,” and then I don’t run. “Okay, I got a gym membership,” and I go for a little bit and then I stop. I tried all this stuff and then I started doing this thing called CrossFit and it stuck like glue.
The things that I talk about that made it stick are the community where you work out the same people every day, the fact that you don’t have to plan it, you just show up and do whatever workout and there’s like some competition there. Since you work out the same people every day, if you don’t show up, they’re going to be now one day more in shape than you.
[0:51:12.3] SC: Right.
[0:51:14.0] TG: And I thinking of that and thinking about the group — I know there’s a bunch of writers but everybody remembers CS Lewis in Tolkien but there was that group of them that constantly met up together and I just think there’s got to be something around that whole “you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with” and all that kind of stuff. It’s like what have you seen and writer’s lives that have set them up for success and how they kind of ordered their life in the people around them?
[0:51:49.6] SC: Wow, that’s a good question. It’s been my experience that the writers that I’ve worked with were introverts. These are people who prefer to spend more time alone than in a group. They live a lot of their days and hours are spent internally. Some people really enjoyed the camaraderie of a small group or even a larger group, it’s been my experience that the writers with the stuff to sit down every day, they’re okay being alone, they prefer it.
Writer’s groups can be very helpful but they can also quickly turn into a power status thing where everybody shits on somebody else’s work but they don’t really know what they’re talking about, they just know they don’t like it. And I’ve taught small groups and I need to figure out —there needs to be some sort of structural thing to evolve to limit that.
So Tolkien and CS Lewis and those guys were pro’s. They didn’t get together to talk about the climax of act three, these guys had put in their time. So when they got together, I think it was probably a lot of blowing off steam more than craft talk. Did they talk about their works in progress? I doubt they did. Maybe I’m just speaking off the top of my head because I haven’t done any of the research.
But I think writers, for the most part, are introverts who like to spend a lot of time alone and then once they have something to share, then they’re hungry for intelligent analysis and criticism that can make them be better. They don’t seek editorial comment or any of that until they’ve got something that they feel relatively safe about. They don’t want people to see their gobble die goop, that’s just been my experience.
On the other side of the equation, television writer rooms are wonderful places that create incredible stories. Those are the contributions of individuals working together on a global story bible and then I’m not sure if you know how this works Tim but they get together for about three months before they shoot anything. And they come up with a story bible, it’s usually about 10 to 20 writers, they sit in a room, they drink coffee and they say, “Okay, what are we going to do this season?” And they plot out 13 to 22 episodes and major story shifts.
And then once they sort of have this story bible for the entire season then they divide up the episodes among the guys and women in the room and they hand out and they say, “Your assignment is episode six, you’re episode five.” Then individually they’ll go out and they’ll bang out a draft of an episode and then they share it. And then all of those people look at it and they say, “I think you need to tweak here and here,” and they get editorial advice after they’ve created the initial draft.
So they do a big global story to begin with, sort of like their foolscap global story grid for the entire season and then they’re divided up and they have to do their individual episodes, each one is assigned an act to write and then they bring the acts back and then they work together again to tweak them, to make them better.
That process is really being tremendously honed right now, you have Breaking Bad, you have these stories, these long form stories that have tremendous momentum form episode to episode and they have a global story attached to them. There’s two methods, there’s the introverted novelist who is probably on the wane and there’s the group episodic television sort of way of writing a story too.
[0:56:20.9] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Story Grid Podcast. If you like more Story Grid stuff, you can find that at Storygrid.com. For all of the past episodes of this podcast you can go to Storygrid.com/podcast, that’s where all the episodes are, the show notes, any downloads we reference you can see all of that right there.
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