Who tells the Story?

I’ll just say this about narrative device…when you figure it out what suits your story best, you’ll find immeasurable relief.

When Harper Lee and her editor figured out that To Kill a Mockingbird would work best using the point of view of Scout reflecting back upon her childhood and when Steven Pressfield figured out that to best tell the battle of Thermopylae in Gates of Fire would be to use the concept of the military “after action report” melded to the narrative of the soul survivor of the Spartan side of the battle…the books almost wrote themselves.  When you nail a narrative device, it’s as if you as the writer stops worrying so much and just “listens” and lets the narrator drive the telling.

Here’s the transcript for episode nine, “What is Narrative Device?” of The Story Grid Podcast.

You can also listen to it by clicking the play button below.

Tim: Hello, and welcome to The Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicate to helping you become a better writer. I’m the host, Tim Grahl, and I am a new writer struggling to figure out how to tell a story that works.

I’m peppering Shawn Coyne with as many questions as I possibly can. He is the creator of the Story Grid. He wrote the book “The Story Grid,” and this podcast is to help me and you understand more about how you can write a story that works.

In this episode, we break down the movie Dead Calm that Shawn told me a few weeks ago I should watch. I finally watched it, and we walked through how the Story Grid applies to that movie.

We also talked about what makes a good setup, and we got into different types of inciting incidents. Then we took a turn that I wasn’t expecting and we focus in on narrative devices. We spent a good bit of time working through those.

It’s a really great episode. I know you’re going to enjoy it. Make sure you hang on until the very end of the show because I have an epilogue where we cut, we talked for a little bit, and then there was this piece that I just had to add back in that I think will be very helpful. That is at the very end of this recording as an epilogue. Hang in for that, and we’ll jump right in.

So I finally got around to watching Dead Calm.

Shawn: Great.

Tim: It was really interesting because I was watching it from the standpoint of everything from the Story Grid, and it was neat to see all the different ways it did what it’s supposed to do. I think the thing that stood out for me the most was how each scene would have a turn but they weren’t all bad turns. I think I have it stuck in my head that each scene should make it progressively worse.

Shawn: Right.

Tim: It came out in 1989, so this is going to be full of spoilers, and he has been telling you guys to watch it for weeks. He started where the boat wasn’t working. His wife is stuck on one boat with the bad guy – Nicole Kidman and Billy Zane – and then Sam Neill ends up on the broken-down boat. But at the beginning of the scene, the ship is broken down and full of water, and at the end of the scene, he gets it running again and takes off after his wife.

I just thought it was interesting how early in the movie it turned positive. It was like “bad scene, bad scene, positive.” That was just a good reminder to me about what we talked about – the whole soap opera thing of “cliffhanger, cliffhanger, resolution.” This was more “negative, negative, positive.” Then there would be a couple more negative scenes, and then the scene ends with her getting the gun. She had been working the whole scene to get the gun put together and in a place where she could use it, and she gets it. That was interesting to me.

The other thing that was interesting is you talked about how one way to do obligatory scenes in a new way is to look at the clichés, look at what’s out there, and just think about what the opposite would be. I loved how it ended up being she was going to rescue him at the end, because he starts out chasing her and I’m thinking, “Okay, yes. He is going to track down this boat, he’s going to get on there, and he’s going to kill Billy Zane and save the day.” But what ends up happening is she takes out Billy Zane and turns around and goes after him because he is sinking on this ship. I thought that was really cool because I was not expecting that at all.

Shawn: Exactly. I think it was George Miller who produced or directed it, and George Miller is that famous Australian director who did the Mad Max films. He is just such a master of that kind of pulling the rug out from under you.

As you’ll remember, at the very beginning of the movie, he established so many things so quickly and so well that we believed the character had that capability even before they displayed it.

For example, when you mentioned the part where Sam Neill was able to get that boat running. Sam Neill, at the very beginning of the movie, he is on a train, and he is the big cheese of a naval operation. He is a very seasoned sailor, so when he goes and fixes that boat, we’re never told that, oh, this guy can do that kind of thing. We just intuitively know it by the way the presentation of the story was.

Tim: Yes. Right before he leaves his boat to go to the broken down boat, they’re talking about “Is this Billy Zane guy crazy?” and she says, “Why do you think this?” and he shrugs and just says, “25 years on the sea.”

Shawn: Exactly. Great line.

Tim: It was a great way to say he’s been doing this for 25 years without it just being thrown at you.

Shawn: Do you know what that is, Tim? This is a great phrase that I learned from Robert McKee. One of the most difficult things about writing a story is getting in exposition. Exposition is all that stuff that you think the reader needs to know as soon as possible. Exposition is one of the difficult things to get in there without seeming cheesy. The phrase that McKee uses is to use exposition as ammunition.

“Exposition as ammunition” means that you use it as a revelatory turning point in a scene. When Nicole Kidman says to Sam Neill, “Well, it seems kind of reasonable. All these people on this boat died of Salmonella poisoning. That’s possible, right?” he just looks at her and says, “No. I’m not really sure.” Then she presses him and he says, “Look, 25 years of experience on the sea tells me this is hinky and weird and not right, and I need to go check that out.”

That ammunition turns the scene from “Oh, we rescued this guy, so let’s just keep him on board. Then we’ll find an island to drop him off on, and everything will be okay.” Sam Neill makes a character choice, an active choice: “I cannot abandon that ship that is sinking on the sea because I suspect something is wrong.”

When he says, “25 years of experience at sea,” we’re telling the reader that this is a very experienced captain, but it makes sense that he says that at that very moment because he has to back up the fact that he is going to leave his wife alone on that ship with that guy. He tells her, “Look, this is my job. My life’s work is being on the sea. I know this is something strange here, so I have to go check out that boat.”

It’s great because he doesn’t just go check out the boat and leave Billy Zane free and clear; he locks him in a state room. He takes the necessary cautions before he leaves the ship because he’s a pro. He doesn’t know that Billy Zane is strong enough and smart enough to break through that trap door.

Exposition as ammunition is a great way of treating information for the reader that you think they need to know immediately, and to give it to them at a critical moment that can turn a scene.

Tim: Yes. In “On Writing,” Stephen King uses an example of a scene where a woman walks in and a man is sitting there, and he says, “Hello, ex-wife.” He’s like “That’s a bad way to do that.” Then he rewrites it as something like – I’m going to butcher it – he says something to her, she says something back, and he plays with the place where the ring used to be. It’s sliding it in instead of just hitting people over the head with it.

The one thing that drove me crazy about the movie, though… You can probably tell me if I’m right in my assumption here. I wish they would have just ended it when she rescued him. She left Billy Zane floating on this little raft thing, so he is obviously going to die in the middle of the Pacific. She finally makes it back right before he is basically going to die on the sea, and she grabs him and rescues him. They should have just ended it.

But instead, the movie keeps going. They go back to find the raft. He is not on the raft, so they think, “Okay, he must have gone in the sea.” Then there’s this whole thing where Billy Zane had climbed back on the boat and still has blood all over him. He tries to attack her, and then Sam Neill finally kills him. I was like, “Oh, come on.”

Shawn: Do you know what that is?

Tim: What?

Shawn: In a thriller, you need to have a false ending. That was the way that they solved the obligatory scene of having a false ending. Whenever you have a thriller, you’ll notice this. In Die Hard and all these other thrillers, there’s a moment when it seems everything is over and then there’s that final bang.

You didn’t buy that, and that was probably the weakest part of the movie. I would agree with you.

Tim: It’s also 17 years old now, so maybe it wasn’t so cliché in 1989.

Shawn: Exactly. It brings me a little bit of sadness because there used to be, when I was growing up, these really mid-budget Hollywood movies that would be just these impeccable thrillers that the studios would produce or they buy from a foreign country for, say, $10 million. They would put them out there on maybe 300 or 400 screens, and they would give them time to breathe, meaning they would let an audience come to them over time. We don’t have those anymore.

There’s another great one called Breakdown. If you ever have time, Netflix a movie called Breakdown. It stars Kurt Russell and I think Kathleen Quinlan.

Tim: Oh, I’ve seen that one.

Shawn: It’s great, isn’t it?

Tim: Yes.

Shawn: And J.T. Walsh plays the bad guy. Holy moly!

Tim: Yes. I watched in college, so it’s been a bit.

Shawn: It’s a great thriller.

Tim: Yes. It’s a similar setup.

Shawn: Exactly. Whenever you can have a husband and a wife who are dealing with a deep marital issue and then they’re challenged by some psychopath, you have the recipe for a pretty good thriller.

A lot of people will always ask me, “What’s a good setup? I’m really having a hard time figuring out that one central setup idea that can sustain a thriller from beginning, middle, to end. That triangle – you can’t really go wrong with the triangle of two men and a woman.

Tim: Which is the same setup for a romance.

Shawn: Exactly. That’s a manageable triangle of manipulative relationships. If you have more than three, then it gets a little bit difficult to handle. That’s why in the epic storytelling tradition you have these pockets of story. You have these subplots. “War and Peace” has like 12 major characters, but they all live in a limited world, unless they go to a battlefield or something.

Anyway, I’m getting a little off-track. The thing is to think about those central conflicts between a married couple challenged by a third force that comes in. It’s a really good way, when you get stuck, of saying to yourself, “Okay. What’s interesting? How am I going to get people to want to keep turning pages? Well, if I have these relationships that are hazy and they’re not really sure where they’re going to go…”

The other great thing about Dead Calm is that you see the arc of Nicole Kidman as a character. She starts out as this very waifish, weak mom who lost her child, who’s on medication, who can’t handle anything. Then she becomes this kickass action hero. It’s cool.

Tim: Yes. I just loved how that built and it built and it built. She kept coming to this mostly best bad choice, and she kept choosing the hard choice because it was the right one.

The other thing I liked that we talked a little bit about before is – I forgot what you call them – where the mix of complications, some of them where environmental, and some of them were… What do you call those two different things?

Shawn: Those are inciting incidents that are either casual or coincidence. Casual means they’re caused by another human being, and coincidence means there’s a storm that comes, or the lights go out, or something happens in the environment that changes that wasn’t caused by any one person.

They’re either casual or coincidental, and you have to mix those up. If you keep having the same on over and over again, the reader is going to be, “This doesn’t seem quite right. I don’t know. There was something about it in the middle. It just seemed to go off the rails, and I lost my ability to suspend my disbelief.”

You hear that a lot from people. When somebody says that to me, I immediately know that the problem that the writer is having in that they’re not mixing up their complications, their inciting incidents for a particular scene. It’s “causal, causal, causal, causal, causal, causal,” not “casual, casual, coincidence, coincidence, casual, casual, coincidence.” You constantly want to keep the reader off balance in much the same way you want to keep your protagonist off balance.

Tim: Yes. In Dead Calm, it was really calm at first, but then a storm came. Then the boat started sinking again for a second time, and he couldn’t fix it. Then, of course, there were the causal ones.

I started looking, too, at how each scene had an inciting incident, like when she walks in to the radio and starts trying to radio him. It’s like, “Oh, man. Billy is going to be mad!”

It’s funny because I don’t watch very many scary movies. I like reading scary books, but I really don’t like things jumping out at me. So there were several times where I’m not looking directly at the screen because I was just waiting for Billy to jump out at her.

Shawn: Wasn’t he great in that?

Tim: Oh, yes.

Shawn: He was so believable in that part. He played that very young in his career, and he was so good in it, everybody thinks he is a nutbag because he was so good in it.

Tim: In the last week, I read two books. One of them was “Before I Go to Sleep.” It was about a woman. It’s a similar setup to the movie Memento and that Adam Sandler movie with Drew Barrymore, 50 First Dates. The whole thing is the woman had an accident and she has lost all short-term memory. So every night she goes to sleep, she resets. She wakes up, and she has lost 20 years of her life. But there’s something sinister going on. The whole thing is she is having trouble figuring it out because she always forgets. That was really good.

I read this one I wanted to run by you because there are a couple things in it that I wanted to mention. It’s called “Bird Box.” It’s just this brutal story. I had trouble sleeping after I finished it. I actually finished it last night. It was late and I still couldn’t go to sleep because I was so freaked out.

It’s basically a typical apocalyptic thing, I guess, where there are these beings that have showed up, and if you look at them, you go crazy and kill yourself and anybody in your vicinity. Then the main character gets to this safe house where there’s a half a dozen of them trying to live. They have all the windows blocked. Anytime they go outside they have to put on a blindfold because they can’t look at anything.

What was interesting, the first thing – this goes back to what we were talking about – is that the writer – I forget the author’s name – he gave you so little information in each scene.

Shawn: That’s great. I’m loving this story already just because of that statement.

Tim: Yes. The whole idea is anytime they have to go outside, they have to put on a blindfold, so the entire book feels claustrophobic because you never get a description of what’s going on. All you get is what they hear and what they feel. You know how you walk in the dark and you get this creepy feeling that somebody’s watching you? The main character starts going crazy because she thinks somebody is watching her, but she can’t take off her blindfold to check. That was really interesting. I just loved however…

Shawn: Sorry to interrupt, but I have to say this, because we talk about this almost every week. What that reflects is a writer with a tremendous respect for his or her audience. I’m going to absolutely buy this book now and check it out.

Tim: It’s one of my favorites I’ve read in a while.

Shawn: It takes so much courage to leave out all that exposition that we cling onto when we’re writing our first draft. I say, “Go ahead. Put all that exposition in. Write as terribly as you possibly can in that first draft,” because you can always cut it out. But when you start paring down your scenes to the point where there’s very little exposition and it’s all active movement on the page, where the character is actually doing things all the time, that allows the reader, who’s your partner in this…

As a writer, you’re writing for readers; everybody writes because they want people to read what they write. So when you respect your reader and you say to yourself, “You know what? These people are so good at story, the less I give them, the more they’re going to fill in by themselves in a way that I would never, ever be able to do specifically for them.”

So when they put those blindfolds on, everybody who reads that book has a specific traumatic incident in their past where they couldn’t see. You know what I mean?

Tim: Yes.

Shawn: So the writer was wisely saying to themselves, “The more I can pull back and let the reader inject their own life experience into my story, the far better experience they’re going to have.” Obviously, it worked for you because you couldn’t sleep after you finished this book.

Tim: Just going off what you said, I think the reason that works so well is because I fill it in with my fear, not his fear.

This is what I wanted to mention, too. The opening scene is… I don’t want to spoil the book. I don’t think this will spoil the book, because it’s just the opening scene. Basically…

Shawn: Before you tell me what exactly it is, I think what would be instructive for people is for me to describe what a great opening scene for a big, global story would be. Then you can tell me what the opening scene is, and we can see if it matches up.

A great way to open up a book is you want to think about how you can generate the most suspense and interest in your story in the shortest amount of time. The thing you also need to know is that with your inciting incident at the very beginning of your book – which is, of course, your global inciting incident of the entire story itself – what you’re doing is you’re setting up not just the beginning of the book, but the ending.

With that first scene that you’re going to give the reader, you’re saying to them, “I’m going to tell a story like this, and because you are so smart and you have been around stories so much in your life, reader, you know that the ending is going to be somewhere in this arena.”

If I’m writing a thriller, I’m going to open up a story where it’s either going to be a “discovery of the body” scene if it’s a serial killer thriller, or it’s going to be the scene when the investigator is hired to find the killer, or it’s going to be something extremely traumatic, like the beginning of Dead Calm, where a man loses his child, his wife is in a coma, and his life is at a very difficult place, where he has to repair his entire life. Is he going to be able to bring his life out of the coma and repair their marriage and move on with their lives, or is he not going to be able to do that?

With that said, now tell me the opening scene of “Bird Box.”

Tim: Okay. The opening scene, the main character, she’s a mom. She has two kids she calls Girl and Boy.

Shawn: I love it already.

Tim: She has decided that today is the day. The fog is thick enough that she can go down to the river and they can get in the boat. That’s all you know.

The next scene is four-and-a-half years before that. The main character is finding out that she is pregnant, and something weird has happened in Russia.

Shawn: Okay. The first scene that you just described is the perfect example of a great beginning. I’ll tell you why. Because what it says to the reader that there’s a woman, she has two kids she has to take care of, and she has to wait until it’s impossible to see outside before she can escape.

What the writer is telling the reader in that very short beginning scene is these people are trapped and they need to escape. That is going to be the through line in the back of the reader’s mind from the beginning of the story to the end. “How did they get into this situation, and are they going to get out of it?” is the central narrative suspense that is going to keep the reader turning pages.

It’s going to meander, of course, and it’s going to go in different directions, depending upon other progressive complications in the storytelling. It’s like “The Wizard of Oz.” Is Dorothy going to get back to Kansas? That’s the central movement of “The Wizard of Oz” that keeps you going in that book.

From the description you just gave me, it’s a woman with her two children who need to get out. Are they going to be able to make it?

Tim: Early in the book, she ends up at this house with some other survivors, and she lets you know that’s the house she is escaping by herself with her two kids.

Shawn: Great.

Tim: The entire book, you’re like, “Where did those people go?” Certain things happen where you’re like, “Okay, they’re not coming back,” and then they come back. You’re like, “When is the author going to get rid of all of these people?” There are all these people there.

Shawn: “How does it happen?” Yes.

Tim: You always talk about the inevitable but surprising end. It mirrored the first scene, and all this kind of stuff that was exactly how it was supposed to be, but I was still like, “Oh my gosh. I can’t believe that’s how it ended.”

It was really good, and it was really neat. But what I thought was interesting that I wanted to run by you was this idea of two stories going on at the same time like that. They’re telling you one story that’s present and one story from four-plus years ago.

Shawn: That’s a great narrative device.

Tim: Talk to me about that a little bit, because I don’t think you touch on that in the book.

Shawn: I don’t, really. The narrative device is a way to not cheat but to help yourself as a writer figure out the tone of the work and how to keep the reader turning pages.

For example, I think I mentioned to you in my notes on your scene to think about the narrative device of the survivor telling the story that has already happened. It sounds like “Bird Box” has that sort of setup, where you almost have a deposition style. It’s like that television series True Detective with Matthew McConaughey. They were interviewing people. “Here we are. We are investigating the investigation.” They make it very formal, and the cops sit down, and they’re being interviewed. They start to tell the story, and then you have the flashback of what happened.

That’s a great narrative device because you have two tracks of story moving at the same time, and you can always pull the rug out from the reader in each one of those ways, and when one way gets stale, you can go back to the other. It’s a really nice way of keeping the reader grounded, too.

For example, many legal thrillers are like this. “Presumed Innocent” is a terrific example of the front story and the back story. The front story is where the lead character, Rusty Sabich, is on trial for killing his lover. We get in the scenes with him and his lawyer and they’re discussing the defense, and as he goes up on the stand to relate the story, then we get the back story.

The narrative device, if you can figure out something that’s really exciting to you early on in your quest to tell your story… And it sounds like the “Bird Box” writer really thought to themselves, “Let me introduce this story almost at the very end, right before the climactic moment of the global story. Then I’ll tell you what happens later.”

In fact, “The Great Gatsby” is also a narrative device in that way, because as you’ll remember, the beginning of the “The Great Gatsby” is Nick Carraway telling a story. He’s telling the reader a story with the vantage point of already having experienced it. So he opens up with “My father used to give me some advice about people. He used to say, ‘Withhold judgments until you get to experience them personally,’ and that reminds me of a guy I knew, and his name was Jay Gatsby.” Then, wow, we’re like, “I wonder what this guy is going to tell us about. That’s interesting.”

Once you’re locked into that flow, what it does for a reader is it makes you feel warm. It makes you feel as if there’s a presence telling you a wonderful story that’s going to have a point, that’s leading somewhere. It’s like being told a bedtime story by your mom or your dad.

When we’re little kids, that’s such an exciting part of your day because you’re in the presence of somebody who has a lot more experience than you do, who’s going to tell you a story that’s going to make you laugh, it’s going to make you a little bit scared, and it’s going to have a point.

Steve Pressfield talks about this a lot, and he’s a master of the narrative device. I had the pleasure of editing his book “Gates of Fire” and a lot of his novels. He’s always thinking about narrative device. He won’t start a novel until he figures out that narrative device.

In “Gates of Fire,” it was this brilliant choice. He wanted to tell the story of the Battle of Thermopylae – 300 Spartan warriors hold back the million-man Persian army at this very narrow pass in Greece. It’s called Thermopylae. It’s one of the most famous battles of all time. It’s incredible.

But he couldn’t figure out “How do I do it where we learn a lot of different things?” because he knows it’s a war story, so the biggest climactic moment is going to be that actual battle. He knew he had to deliver that battle, but he wanted to build to that battle so that the battle had context and rich detail.

The story is that all 300 Spartan guys die, so there’s nobody to tell the story of what happened leading up to that. So Steve thought to himself, “What if I did a little research, and I find out…?” There must have been a group of people who supported the Spartans – slaves who would bring their battle gear and cook their meals for them and take care of them while they were fighting. That’s the way they used to fight. They would have a Man Friday of sorts.

What if there was a sole survivor of the battle, and the Persians find this guy after they slaughter and wipe out all 300 Spartans? They find this one guy, and Xerxes, who’s the King of Persia, says to his men, “Bring that man to me. I need to know how these Spartans fight. They killed a million men, and there were only 300 of them. I want that man to live because he is going to tell me how those suckers trained and were able to kill all of my best warriors.”

That’s the narrative device. We get this great narrative device where the sole survivor of the battle is relating the story of the Spartans to the Persian King. The Persian King wants to hear the story because he thinks that if he understands how the Spartans fight, he can teach his men to fight in the same way. So that narrative device is so crucial.

If you read “Gates of Fire,” it’s a little like reading The “Iliad.” It’s not like picking up a terrific little crime thriller where you’re engaged immediately. You need to get a feel of the language, because Steve somehow was able to recreate this feeling of ancient Spartan prose.

It’s not like it’s this easy thing to jump in there and you’re on this adventure. He needs to really grab the reader and get them attached to his narrator before he can really get into the meat and potatoes of the Spartan world.

I remember I was an editor at Doubleday at the time, and Steve’s agent at the time was a guy named Sterling Lord, who’s one of the greatest agents of all time. If there’s a Hall of Fame of literary agents, Sterling Lord is right there. I write sometimes on my website about the publishing community and how there’s this service community of scouts who make friends of agents and of editors, and they basically make sure they know everything that’s going on in the publishing industry before it happens.

I was at this place where I needed to publish at the top of the Doubleday list, which meant that I would publish six to eight books a year, and they would be the ones that would hit the New York Times Bestseller List, knock on wood. So I was really deeply engaged and connected to this community.

A friend of mine who was a scout called me one day and said, “Hey, I heard about this submission that Sterling Lord is out with, and I immediately thought of you because it’s about the Battle of Thermopylae or something like that. Thermopile? I don’t know,” and I was like, “Oh my God. Somebody wrote a novel about the Battle of Thermopylae?”

I immediately called Sterling, and I said, “Hey, Sterling, man, this is right up my alley. Send it to me.” He did, and I took it home that night. It was like reading the “Iliad” for the first time. I’m one of those nerds who loves the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey.” Luckily, I was probably the only nerd in town who totally got it, so I worked out a deal with Sterling, and that’s how I met Steve. That was in 1995 or 1996.

Anyway, that’s a long story to tell you that the really important choice to make is the narrative device. I talk a lot about point of view and free and direct style and third-person omissions and all that kind of stuff in “The Story Grid” book, but narrative device is almost like a personal choice by the writer. It’s the thing that’s really going to make them feel comfortable in their storytelling.

Tim: When you talk about narrative device… So the stories that are more typical, where you just start at the beginning and go to the end, that’s one narrative device. Another would be somebody telling the story…

Shawn: Yes. A story within a story. “Gone Girl” is a great example of a terrific narrative device. It was unique, and it was fresh, and it was fantastic.

Tim: Because there was the diary at the same time as the story?

Shawn: Exactly. And she wrote in first person. Gillian Flynn is just a fantastic writer. She wrote it in first person – “I went to the store” – from the female point of view and the male point of view, and it was convincing on both sides of the equation. When I read that book, I was like, “Oh my gosh. How does she know how men think?” because this guy Nick sounds like a guy I know. He is like a friend.

Her narrative device, which was a really unique one was she was using the unreliable narrator device, where you have a narrator who is telling a story for their own particular reasons. I’m not going to spoil “Gone Girl” because it’s a great reading experience, but both characters in that book are trying to convince the reader/the universe to their particular way of thinking.

Anyway, there are many different examples of narrative device. The traditional narrative device is the Dickensian, omniscient God-like creature who says, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”

Tim: And just tells everything that happens.

Shawn: Yes. “The Princess Bride” is another great example of a narrative device. William Goldman brilliantly thought to himself, “Hey, I’m just going to have a grandfather make up a crazy story because a kid, his grandson, won’t go to sleep. That’s going to be my narrative device.” In the movie, it’s wonderful because he is played by Peter Faulk. He’s like, “Ah, let’s see. Then there’s this guy, Inigo Montoya…”

Tim: No, he’s reading the book. But he skips parts and stops and talks to the kid. I just think that’s interesting because I’ve never really thought of this before.

One of the goals for myself and for people listening is we want to set it up for success. I want to create everything that makes you most likely to succeed in writing this book and it becoming a success. So when I think about narrative device, why was it so engaging for me that in “Bird Box” I was reading two different stories? Because on one hand, I kept thinking, “I know exactly what’s going to happen,” but yet that alone kept me reading.

Shawn: Exactly. I think you answered your own question with that statement. Flashbacks are a part of everyday life. Say you decide to go out with your friend for a cup of coffee, and before you do, you’re e-mailing each other and he goes, “Oh my gosh. I have to tell you a story. You’re not going to believe what happened to our mutual friend Jim.”

You’re like, “No, you have to tell me!”

“Wait a minute. I’ll tell you at coffee. Well, let’s just say he and his wife, Sally, broke up.”

You’re like, “Wait. How did they break up? What happened?”

“Well, it’s not what you think.”

You’re like, “What?” and he says, “I’ll tell you at coffee.” So you go for coffee, and you’re ready. You have your coffee and you want to hear this story. You want to know exactly what happened.

If he throws down the punchline immediately – “Well, it turns out that Sally was in love with his brother, and the brother was in love with Sally’s cousin” – it’s a little bit disappointing. But if he builds up and tells you the little events that occurred that revealed that deep secret, then he’s got you on a string. He got you to go across town to a coffee shop to hear that story.

It’s the same thing in a novel or in a screenplay. If you can set up that relationship that we all are so familiar with, which is hanging out with a friend who tells you just a great story… Why do you think…? A lot of people have drinking problems, but a lot of people go to bars. They go to bars for that experience. They love the idea of sitting down, pulling up, having a beer, and listening to the guy next to them tell them the story of their life.

Tim: You said Steve Pressfield thinks a lot about what narrative device before he starts writing. What does that mean? What kinds of questions is he asking?

Shawn: “Who is the best person to tell this story?” That’s the question he is asking. “Who is going to give me the most freedom and limitation at the same time to steer me down the right path to tell this story in the right way?”

When Fitzgerald wrote “The Great Gatsby,” he could have told it from the point of view of Tom Buchanan, or he could have told it from the view of Jordan – the prissy golf pro who’s the friend of Daisy – or he could have told it from the point of view of Daisy.

I have to tell you, he thought to himself, “Oh my gosh. I want to tell this story about basically the very nastiness of the class system, the social stratification of American life. How am I going to tell it? Who’s the best person to tell it from?”

Tim: When I think about “Bird Box” again… It was that Josh somebody [Josh Malerman], who wrote it. He could have told us…

Shawn: This poor guy busted his ass for years, and we don’t even… I bet he doesn’t care because we’re talking about his book.

Tim: That’s right. He’d rather you buy his book. Well, I had it up and then I was looking at other books while we’re talking and it’s way in my history now.

He could have told the story chronologically and just put that entire story of going to the boat and everything that happens at the end, and it would have worked. The end of the first part could have said, “Four years later,” or “Now the kids are four years older,” or whatever. But weaving them together like that is interesting.

I think that’s what’s so fascinating to me, because now I’m reading the stories from a different perspective now that we’re doing the podcast and looking at it from the Story Grid. It was just interesting how weaving them together did build that anticipation. The whole time I’m reading, I’m like, “Okay, something happens to these people. I’m dying to know what happens to these people because they’re not there anymore in the first scene.”

Shawn: Often, Tim – and I’ve done this as an editor – that can become an editorial choice after you have a draft, meaning the writer could very well have started from the very beginning, banged that thing out, looked at it over and over and over again, and said to himself, “Oh, man. This is really hard to get people to start from the beginning of this thing. I wonder how I could suck them in really quickly.” It’s like giving them a little dish of ice cream before they have to eat the main meal. That can be an editorial choice, whereby you go,” Oh! What if I move scene 57 to scene 1? What would that do? Holy cow! That’s the easiest fix ever. Then I move 55 to 2.”

With narrative device choices, you can do what Steve Pressfield does, which is to make those choices very clearly very early on. He did the same thing with “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” and with his latest novel that we’re working together on, he certainly that choice very early on. It gives him a level of comfort that allows him to know where he is going. It’s like his trail guide when he is setting out on his journey, when he is writing his book.

But some people would rather make that choice after they have a draft. There’s no one way to solve that. When I’m editing a book, I’ll look at the choices that the writer has made, and I’ll create all those crazy graphs and all that stuff, and I’ll do the Story Grid spreadsheet, and I’ll do the Foolscap Global Story Grid.

Then I’ll be able to say to the writer, “Hey, man, you have a huge moment here in your middle build that’s so good that you could actually launch your entire global story using that, and it’s not going to mess up the sequencing of your entire book. What about moving that upfront?” These are the moments when I earn my living, because what will happen is the writer will go, “No, there’s no way we can do that,” and I’ll say, “Okay. Well, just think about it.” Then they’ll call me.

Tim: You know, whenever you do the writer voice, it’s whiny.

Shawn: Well, that’s the way I talk when I write, so it’s personal experience. I never want to take anyone’s advice, either, so I’m the first one to reject it.

Anyway, my only point is that I recommend that you really think about narrative device before you start plunging in, because it could solve a lot of problems early on, or it could solve a lot of problems later on. But it’s a great little thing, it’s a tool that will help you bring a reader into your world very quickly if you can make it very familiar to them.

Tim: T.V. does this a lot, where they’ll show you a scene where something really bad is happening, and then it ends with somebody dead or a cliffhanger. Then it will say, “Three days earlier…”

Shawn: Right. That’s Law & Order. That has been the opening scene of Law & Order for 15 years; the “discovery of the body” scene. Go watch every Law & Order episode, and they’ll begin with the “discovery of the body” scene, and then they’ll do the investigation for the police, and then they will do the legal action from the district attorney’s office.

Tim: But that’s still linear, right? Because the person dies and then the police get involved.

Shawn: Oh, yes. True.

Tim: You mentioned that, where you’re like, “What if we take this one scene and move it to the front?” That happens a lot in T.V. where they’ll show you something and then they’ll say, “Three days earlier…” and they’re just sitting around the office, and you’re like, “Okay. How did they get from there to when it was solved?”

Shawn: The Hangover is the best example of that.

Tim: Oh, yes. Where he is on the phone and he calls the wife and it’s like, “We lost him.” It goes back to when they’re just getting going on the story. What I like is you get caught up about two-thirds to three-fourths of the way through, and then you get the end of the story.

Shawn: Right.

Tim: I think that’s interesting because I had never thought that you have to think that stuff through. Is what we just talked about almost like a cheat so that if you can’t come up with a really killer beginning of a story to suck someone in, you’re like, “Okay, I’ll just pull out this really awesome scene that I know people are going to be like, ‘Well, now I have to know what happens’”?

Shawn: Exactly. Yes, I think that’s a wonderful way to prime the pump of your own imagination.

Tim: Ever since you gave me that camel line – what was it? “The last camel died,” or something?

Shawn: “The last camel collapsed at noon.”

Tim: Yes. I’ve written a few scenes since then, and I’m trying to think of some awesome opening line, and I’m like, “Yes. I got nothing.”

I think that’s interesting, this way that you can shift the whole way you tell the story. It almost feels like a cheat or a shortcut to drawing the reader in. Again, back to “Bird Box,” all of a sudden, I’m like, “Why does the fog matter? Where are they going on this boat? Why do these kids not have names? Why is there a microphone outside the house that she has to listen to?” I don’t understand anything that’s going on, and then all of a sudden, it jumps back in time, and I’m like, “Oh. Okay. I guess I have to find out what happens.”

It was neat to read that after we’ve had so many discussions about it. We opened with this, so we don’t have to go back into it, but he didn’t tell me anything. All he did was open up all these loops that he didn’t close. When I was writing that first scene that you read through, all I was doing was being scared of leaving in the open loops and feeling that as a reader now with this book, the open loops are what kept me engaged in the book. If he had told me all that stuff, it would have killed the whole reason I wanted to keep reading.

Shawn: Absolutely true.

Tim: Thanks for listening to The Story Grid Podcast. As always, if you would like more of The Story Grid, you can find that at StoryGrid.com. The number one thing you can do is sign up for the e-mail list. That’s where Shawn sends out regular updates, new resources, and new blog posts. Make sure you sign up there.

Also, right now, Shawn’s publisher, Black Irish Books, has a killer deal for writers. It’s this mega bundle of books just for writers. It’s only $35. It’s a really great deal. I actually bought it myself. You can get a copy of “The Story Grid,” but also a copy of a lot of other books by Steven Pressfield that will help you become a better writer. You can see that at BlackIrishBooks.com, or click the link in the show notes.

As I mentioned before, there is an epilogue to this episode, so that’s coming up next. Otherwise, thanks as always for your support of the show, and I look forward to seeing you next week.

Shawn: I think a show dedicated to narrative device is a good one. It is a little bit of a cheat, but what’s great about it is… It feels like a cheat because it makes you create a voice in your own head.

If you can picture that person talking to you and telling a story, then you don’t put so much pressure on yourself. Then you’re not like, “Oh my God. I have to figure out the third act.” Instead, you’re like, “Okay. It’s that lady who they found on the raft. She is sitting in the interrogation room. There’s this guy asking her a question, and he asks, ‘Then what happened?’ and she answers…” You almost hear her speaking.

People talk about this all the time as writers. “It’s as if the characters were talking to me.” If you can set up that dynamic, it’s wonderful, because then you don’t feel like you’re the one on the hook. It’s this invented character in your head who has to come up with the right response to the questions that they’re being asked.

Tim: What I was wanting to ask – maybe we’ll put this in the epilogue – is how that fits with the Story Grid. Does it still fall into the beginning hook, middle build, and end, even though it’s like…? I’m thinking specifically about “Bird Box.”

Shawn: It’s a way of creating an inciting incident – global – that will pay off in a huge way at the very ending. It’s a solution to the five commandments of storytelling. It’s a way into big inciting incidents.

The big problem, Tim, is to figure out “What are the big movements in your story?” It’s like “How do I get to Chicago? How do I get to Denver? And how do I get to L.A.?” You want to know “How am I going to solve that climax of the beginning hook? How am I going to solve the climax of the middle build? And how am I going to solve the climax of the ending payoff?” So narrative device is a way to think of those big, hairy movements that you need to have a general idea of before you start your work.

Once you have those mile markers, then you can back your way into “Okay, the way I get to Chicago is to take I-80 through the Pennsylvania turnpike.” If you have a story and you say, “Okay. The end of the climax is the captain of the ship found dead in the machinery room. Okay, how do I get to that point?” You start from the beginning hook and then you move there. Then the end of the beginning hook is the storm comes. “How do I get to the storm?”

So it’s breaking up your problems into smaller problems, and narrative device, you say to yourself, “Well, I have somebody who’s telling a story to an investigator, and then I can go back and forth between time, and then I can make maybe the climax of my middle build about the investigation. She is charged with murder,” that kind of thing.

Tim: What’s interesting to me in “Bird Box” is that I feel what happens is there’s this beginning part where things start happening around the word, she finds out she is pregnant, then she has to get to a safe place, and then the middle build begins when she gets to the safe place.

Shawn: Right. Then she has to get out of the safe place.

Tim: Well, the beginning of the ending payoff was the first scene of the book.

Shawn: Right. Of course, it is.

Tim: What was so interesting to me is when I tried to think through the beginning hook, the middle build, and the ending payoff, I was like, “Well, the ending payoff was this part of the story, but I read that through the entire story.” It was weaved all the way through the beginning hook and middle build.

Again, I’ve read books like that before, but not from this perspective. I was always thinking of it as linear. “Okay. First I’m going to tell this part, then the middle build, and then I’m going to tell the end.” I just thought it was fascinating how it stretched the ending payoff all the way back through the entire book.

Shawn: Yes. It’s also psychologically great because then you say to yourself – and this is strange, but it’s true – “Oh, great. I just have to write the ending payoff. The other stuff I already know.” Then I’m filling in the exposition of the back story in this flashback, and that’s all the stuff that’s going to be difficult to get the reader to really want to invest themselves in. So all I have to really do is this slam-bang ending and then tack on what happened to lead up to that slam-bang ending.

I have to tell you, it’s catnip for a reader because we love to be in the hands of a master storyteller. If you can invent one who’s telling the story to the reader in the first-person Free Indirect style, which is a mixture of “I” and getting the reader’s thoughts, along with the action, then it makes your job a little bit easier.


13 comments on “Who tells the Story?

  1. Superb episode. Worth exploring even further.

  2. Mary Doyle says:

    I could listen to the two of you talk all day. This is such a great series – I’m looking forward to The Martian grid next week (I just finished reading it yesterday) – now I’m off to put a few bucks into Josh Malerman’s pocket. As always, thanks for leaving us with much to think about!

  3. Michael Beverly says:

    Couldn’t resist something about a thriller…I’m on an island in the middle of the pacific. Basically I’m in a third world country (it’s a former French colony) working a day job for room and board and writing/editing/marketing at night and weekends.

    I didn’t know The Martian had won, I’m looking forward to that.

    BUT: Gone Girl…

    We’ve talked about that before Shawn, about how complicated it is, and I’m wondering if you’ll consider at some point explaining more about doing a story grid for a multiple story story.

    I’m thinking maybe you have to do two outlines, one for each character, and then braid them together like pigtails on a high school girl.

  4. I’m listening to this one for the second time. This is the best learning experience ever because of the combo of a new writer (with great talent) and a complete expert whose knowledge, insight and opinions can’t be doubted… and are thankfully spelling out in print!

    I’ve also started over on “The Story Grid” now that I own the physical book and can see the print that was small on my Kindle. I’m understanding your unique treatment of genre now. At first I was confused that SF wasn’t in the content leaf.

    I think I’ve figured out that my novel is Fantasy-SiFi-HardSiFi-Thriller. Now I need to discover what the obligatory and other important scenes are. I’m thinking they’re the same as for any thriller. Am I right?

    I’m putting my scenes into foolscap and finding plot weaknesses. Lots of re-writing now. I couldn’t be more excited about transforming my meandering story into something that pulls and works.

    Thank you so much, Shawn and Tim !

    1. Patrick Maher says:

      Old English – “my tow bob’s worth”. You say, Fantasy-SiFi-HardSiFi-Thriller. Now I need to discover what the obligatory and other important scenes are. I’m thinking they’re the same as for any thriller. Am I right?
      I think so, except for the ‘rivets in space’ bit that characterises most SciFi.

      1. Patrick Maher says:

        Ignore this – it is a crap first draft. Same time as the real post below (1:16am).

    2. Patrick Maher says:

      Old English – “my two bob’s worth”. You say, Fantasy-SiFi-HardSiFi-Thriller. Now I need to discover what the obligatory and other important scenes are. I’m thinking they’re the same as for any thriller. Am I right?
      I think so, except for the ‘rivets in space’ bit that characterises most SciFi.

      1. Patrick Maher says:

        Oh, and look up the Now Novel PATTERN system of setting up a Sci-Fi novel.

  5. augustina says:

    Thank you!
    Are the reader’s thoughts really mixed in with Free Indirect Style?
    There were some typos, no a big deal except when I read the transcript it said ‘casual’ instead of ‘causal’ and that was confusing. So, I listened to the podcast and heard that it was supposed to be ‘causal’ all along, not ‘casual’ at all.
    I ordered _Bird Box_. I think there is a movie version or will be soon?

  6. Patrick Maher says:

    Wonderful stuff. A thought – every time you use ‘like’ in our family it costs you a dollar – other than if it is used to point to a simile. Can I come to live at Tim’s house for a week? I would be a very rich man. ‘Like’ here is used mostly instead of ‘I thought’, or ‘I felt’, or ‘in my opinion’. ‘Like’ is a noise made by the disempowered, the unsure, and those who lack confidence. Why here? This interviewer has a real writer’s voice. Writers seek precision in language and this use of ‘like’ goes well beyond phatic usage. It is not writerly, it is not right. Not for an Interview with the calibre of Shawn Coyne.
    But still, as annoying as the peppering of ‘like’ is, it is still a wonderful interview – mostly because the interviewer respected and listened to the interviewee so we could listen vicariously. For that, thanks.

  7. Patrick Maher says:

    Oh Shawn, you’ve been infected: “Then you’re not like, “Oh my God. I have to figure out the third act.” Instead, you’re like, “Okay.”
    Like man, like this is crazy, like you know better! My Irish grandmother wants to talk to you – like, urgently.

    1. augustina says:

      People’s conversational and writing styles are usually not the same.

  8. maggy simony says:

    Your closing paragraph–“we love to be in the hands of a master storyteller”–reminded me of myself when young, decades ago, and reading Somerset Maugham. Does anybody (or you) ever read him anymore? He was a master storyteller — understated. So many movies were made based on one of his short stories (Rain–several times remade–The Letter, come to mind right now). Picking up something new he’d written just was such a pleasure — knew I’d enjoy myself.

    My memory is he often told stories through one of the un-key characters as observer and tale-teller.

    But everybody on this website is so much younger than I am, probably never heard of him?? He was wildly popular back then, best seller, even though “literary” critics kind of looked down their noses. My feeling then was reading him, he made storywriting seem almost TOO EASY to be serious. Try the opening pages of Cakes and Ale — I used to read that short novel every five years or so just to re-enjoy. Now I no longer have it in my collection — or at least i can’t find it.


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