Here’s the transcript for episode five, “Rocky is kind of a loser” 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 the show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. In this show, we walk through the book “The Story Grid” by Shawn Coyne, who will join me in a second. We are walking through all of the ideas in the book and discussing them and going deep on them so that we all can become a better writer.
The way that we are going about that is I, Tim Grahl, am the host and I am a fledgling fiction writer trying to figure out how to do this thing called writing, and Shawn Coyne is the seasoned expert helping me walk along the path. Hopefully as we do this, you can become a better writer alongside of me.
In this episode, we talk about how to get started with your story. One of my questions was I don’t want to write 100,000 words before I find out that my story is no good, so how do we make sure that we start on a good path and start off right with our story? We also talk about the movie and the book “The Martian” and how “The Story Grid” applies to that, and we dive into the external and internal genres, as well. It’s a really great episode. I hope you enjoy it, and we’ll get started right now.
Shawn, I’ve just been thinking a lot lately about how to get started, because it’s great to have a bunch of tools that let me know if my story is horrible but that will only help me after I’ve written 100,000 words or whatever.
What would you say if I have my story in mind and I want to do everything I can before I write the actual book to make sure that it’s good and I waste as few words written as possible? What’s that process for getting started on your story?
Shawn: I’m really excited that you brought this up because I’ve actually been writing something for Steve Pressfield’s site about this very thing. Here’s what I suggest. I think this is really good advice.
Tim: Well, I hope so.
Shawn: Okay, here’s what I think. You know at the beginning of the podcast when we first started this, you were really fascinated by the concept of obligatory scenes, and conventions, and genres.
Everybody I talk to who has read my book or read anything online, that’s what they always want to talk about. “Tell me more about these obligatory scenes and conventions.” The other thing people want to know is “How do I start? ‘The Story Grid’ looks pretty cool, but I have to have a manuscript before I can actually use it,” and that’s not true. This is the way you can use “The Story Grid” to get yourself going, to start things moving.
What I suggest is to pick an obligatory scene from the genre that you are really enamored with, that you really want to write. Say you want to write a crime novel. Instead of trying to sit down and map out your Foolscap Global Story Grid and all of the things that I suggest in the book, just start here. This is going to lead you down a road that’s going to help fill in all those questions that you have later on, and it’s going to give you something extremely specific to do from the very start.
What do I mean by that? Say you want to write a crime novel. Start with an obligatory scene that you know is in every single crime novel. A great example for a crime story would be the “discovery of the body” scene. You can’t really have a crime story without the discovery of a crime scene. You can’t have a crime story unless there’s a moment in time, usually at the very, very beginning of the story – it’s usually the inciting incident of the entire story – where somebody discovers a dead body or, say, somebody’s house has been ransacked.
The other day I watched Gone Girl. I read the book and I watched the movie. That obligatory scene, the “discovery of the crime” scene is at the very beginning of the movie. It’s at the time when Ben Affleck comes back and he sees that his wife is nowhere to be found. His cat’s outside. The door’s wide open to his house. He goes inside, nothing seems to be amiss except there’s his broken coffee table. He calls out for his wife, and he can’t find her.
What that scene establishes is a lot of things. It establishes the fact that something’s not quite right. With the broken glass, it establishes that maybe some violent act has occurred, and his wife has disappeared. That scene is in the book, too.
That’s an example of a scene where at the start of the scene, it’s one way and then at the end of the scene, it’s another. At the beginning of the scene, Ben Affleck is just going home to pick something up or to check on something and he discovers his cat walking out on the sidewalk, which doesn’t really make sense, so he picks up the cat.
Actually, what happens is his next-door neighbor calls him and says, “Hey, your cat’s loose. You should go home and pick him up.” Affleck goes home. He picks up the cat. He waves to the neighbor and says thank you for the help. Then he goes to his door and he notices everything is unlocked. That’s an example of progressively complicating the scene. His door should not be unlocked.
Then he takes it further. He goes and he opens the door. He walks into the living room, and he notices that there are photographs that have fallen off the mantel and that the coffee table is smashed into a million pieces – another progressive complication – so he starts calling for his wife. His wife doesn’t answer – another progressive complication.
At the end of that scene, we have an establishment of the crime. Something has happened. We don’t know why. We don’t know how. We don’t know what. Say you want to write a crime story. Take that scene, that scene I just described, and do it your way. Do it your way.
In the movie Seven, they had this scene over and over and over again because they have the seven deadly sins involved in that story. You anticipate as a viewer, “I wonder how the killer is going to do gluttony. I wonder how the killer is going to do envy.” You’re anticipating these “discovery of the body” scenes before they actually happen. That’s a brilliant screenplay and a brilliant movie, too.
When you initially ask me, “How do you get started?” start small. Start thinking about an obligatory scene. For another example, say you’re writing a love story. In every love story, there is a moment in time when the lovers break up. They say to themselves, “This isn’t going to work out. You’re really nice and really cool, but you’re really not for me.” If you’re writing a love story, you have to have that scene in there.
How can you write that story, that scene, that’s interesting, that hasn’t been done before and play with it and come up with a whole bunch of different scenarios, like maybe the woman is at the health club and she discovers that her lover is standing by the pool right before she gets to go on her daily swim and he’s never there. “I wonder what’s up there, what’s going on.”
She goes over to see him, he looks terrible, and she doesn’t understand why. Before she jumps in the pool, he tells her, “I don’t want to be with you anymore.” Maybe that’s a scenario that could be your breakup scene.
Tim: You think that’s where we should start?
Shawn: I think so. I think it’s a way in, because what you’re going to discover if you do one specific scene in your global story is you’re going to find that it’s going to inspire other scenes, and setups, and payoffs and different sets of different ideas for you to explore later on.
One of the big things is to innovate those obligatory scenes in your global genre. You need to know, globally, what kind of story you want to tell. Obviously, that’s the first thing you’re going to figure out before you write any scene.
But I think to get your imagination going and your writer’s skills working, to work on one specific scene to get going is a great way to get into the flow, as opposed to being very, very analytical and editorial at the beginning, which would mean filling out your Global Foolscap page and figuring out “Am I going to have an internal genre? What’s my inciting incident in my first act? What’s the progressive complication?”
All of that stuff is really important, but it can really suck the life out of you. You know what I mean? Because what you’ll end up doing is you’ll have all these intellectual ideas in your head, like, “Maybe that moment where the ship hits the rocks, that was in Titanic and I don’t know…” You can really wrap your mind into a really large vortex of pain by being so analytical at the beginning.
What I always suggest is give yourself a task. Give yourself a creative task that can be fun. If I were leading a writing class and I had gone through a lot of theory, what I would do at the end of the class would be to give an assignment. The assignment would be to go and take a very specific scene task home with them and have fun with it. I would give them a word count, and I would say – it’s like Name That Tune – “You need to write an obligatory scene where the lovers meet in your love story, and you have to do it in a thousand words. Go.”
What people will do is they’ll think, “All right, what’s the set up? Let’s see. Maybe they’re in an airport. No, that’s been done before. What about…?” and you can see where this is leading. The more and more you start creatively thinking about those setups, the more things are going to start coming into your head. You’re going to start to get a picture of it, and then you can bang something out. It might not be perfect so you’ll try it again.
What I’ve discovered is that – this is funny – it takes ten times to figure out something that’s unique and different, because those first four or five times, even when I’m talking off the top of my head in this podcast, the first things I think of are kind of stupid. They’re like the things you’re like, “Wow, discovery of the body scene? I don’t know.”
But the more you dive deeper and deeper into your brain, the more creative you’ll be, because what you’re doing is you’re getting rid of everything that you’ve seen before and read before. To actually voice that, or write that, or put that on the paper is important because it gets it out of your head and it allows you to go deeper into your creative energies.
And very specific creative energies – it’s not like, “Come up with the solution to the third act now.” It’s like, “No, do the scene where the woman dumps the guy at the county fair. How are you going to do that scene?” You know?
Tim: Yes. The idea here is to start – what is it? – just letting some creativity flow before you get analytical about what you’re writing?
Shawn: No, you’re using analytical tools from the start to inspire you creatively. There’s a difference. If I just said to you, “Just write any scene that comes to mind, and it has to be 500 words.” That’s not very helpful, because you’re going to be like, “I don’t know what to write. Should I write about walking my dog, or what?”
But if I say to you, “You need to create this scene that’s going to be eventually in your book, and the scene is this: you have to have a character discover a crime, and you have to end it such that the reader has no idea what happened so that they’re going to want to turn the page and find out what happens next.”
Tim: It’s funny, because the reason I asked the original question of “How do you get started?” was I was trying to set it up so that we would talk about the Foolscap. This is not what I thought you would say; I thought you’d be like, “Okay, well you pull out your Foolscap and you get started,” which we need to explain what that is. It’s just interesting.
Shawn: I think if you start with the Foolscap… And you can absolutely do that if… There are two kinds of different writers – we talked about this last week – the writer who doesn’t like to plan, the pantser, people who like to write by the seat of their pants, and the writer who loves to plan, who wants to plan it down to the beat level before they write one word. One of my challenges is to think about people who don’t like to plan so much and to give them the tools necessary for them to be inspired to go back and plan.
The reason why I brought up this idea of writing an obligatory scene from the genre that you like the most to start is that once you have that down, you’re going to feel like, “Now I have a general sense of the world I want to explore. I thought that my lead character was going to go on an internal education plot at the beginning before I even wrote this scene, but now that I look at this scene that I wrote, I see that that person, that character, is a little bit different than what I expected. Maybe it would work better with a redemption plot.”
If you were writing “Gone Girl”… I don’t want to ruin “Gone Girl,” but it’s a great setup.
Tim: That book reads like a rocketship. It just rips you through the entire thing.
Shawn: Exactly. The payoff, a lot of people love it or hate it, and it doesn’t matter because it pays off in a unique and compelling way that’s completely believable. When you come to the end of that, you say, “Oh my gosh, obviously, that’s what was going on from the very start.”
But what’s so great about that book in so many different ways is that when you look at the characters in it, you could start and take those characters anywhere you want to go, but you’re not really going to be inspired in a way that gives you the energy and the oomph to get through that Foolscap page.
We’re going to get into the Foolscap page. There’s no avoiding it because it’s a very, very important tool for a writer, especially, but you can’t be an editor if you don’t have any understanding of this.
Just to take one step back, Tim, and give an overview of what the Foolscap Global Story Grid is all about, there are thousands of words on my website about it, but let me quickly give the big picture here.
There is a very global point of view when you’re looking at a story and then there’s the micro point of view, which is scene to scene. The Foolscap Global Story Grid is all about the big picture. What are the big, big moments in this story? What’s the beginning, what’s the middle, and what’s the end?
If we were talking about the movie Rocky, the beginning of Rocky is he gets to fight the champion of the world. That’s the beginning hook. The middle build of Rocky is how is Rocky going to prepare for the fight? The ending of Rocky is the fight. Globally, that’s the entire Rocky story.
You need to know what that Global Foolscap Story is for what you’re going to write so that you know how to begin, how to flesh out the middle, and how to end it. That is the global kind of thing and that’s what the Foolscap Global Story Grid is all about. It’s a one-page – one sheet of paper – map for you to map out your entire novel.
The reason why we started this conversation and I said, “Hey, I think it would be a good idea to inspire you to create that Foolscap, to start with one really intense, obligatory scene that you really want to write,” is because it’s going to inform you and it’s going to help you make better choices for your global map.
Because if you spend a lot of time making a global map and you go, “Great. I have my working orders here and I know what I’m going to do, I know the genres I’m going to explore, I know the controlling idea, I know the point of view, I know all of these things,” and you sit down and you write, say, the inciting incident of the global story and you’re writing a crime story – guess what? It’s the discovery of the body scene – and you write that and you go, “Oh my gosh, I really don’t want to do an education plot, and I just spent all that time doing the education plot. This is really a redemption plot.”
That’s why I think starting with something micro so that you can feed off that to go global is a good idea. Other people… You may be completely different, Tim, and you may say to yourself, “You know what? I really don’t want to do that micro story, because I really want to do my big global and I don’t mind going back and switching and playing with my Global Foolscap Story Grid as I’m writing. But I really need that Global Story Grid to start.”
That’s totally cool, but what I’m trying to do in our conversations is to give options to people who work in different ways, and I was thinking to myself from our conversation in the last session when we were talking about how do you start, where do you go, how’s it going to work, and I was saying to myself, “If I had to do that, what would be fun as opposed to homework?” I was thinking obligatory scenes would be fun to do.
Tim: Because I look at it as I’m scared of the writing, so doing the Foolscap is a way for me to put off the writing just a little bit longer because I’m planning the writing. I was like, “Okay, cool. We can do the Foolscap, and I don’t actually have to write yet.”
Shawn: Okay, that’s fair. That’s totally cool.
Tim: But it’s interesting because we’re recording these every week, so I have a week from this one to the next one. Last week, we went through the five leaves of the genre, so what I’m going to do by the next episode is I’m going to write the inciting incident of my story, and I’ll send that to you beforehand, and I’ll also work on the Foolscap as well. But that will give me a deadline so I actually do it.
But that is an interesting way, because for me, what I tell people is, “Whatever you’re the most scared of, you should probably work on that first.” When you said, “The first thing you should do is write the scene,” my blood pressure just shot up.
Tim: I’m like, “No, no, no, I don’t want to write yet.”
Shawn: Good. I could sense a little bit of tension after I had mentioned that.
You’re absolutely right. You need to attack the things that scare you the most because you just have to beat them down. Guess what? I have no doubt that you’re going to be able to write a 1000- or 1500-word scene.
The first one that you write, you’re going to probably say, “That’s not so good, but there’s something there.” Then you’re going to tweak it again and you’re going to tweak it again. I have a good feeling that you’re going to discover something that is going to inform your global story in a way that you have no idea right now.
It’s like when we were talking last week about the general idea of this ship that’s been abandoned. It’s this little universe that is cut off from the rest of the world. It could be a ship on the ocean. It could be a spaceship. It could be an island like in “Lord of the Flies.” That is a very, very compelling notion.
I was thinking about this because I’m like, “There’s something to Tim’s global notion that’s interesting to me.” I think it’s because we all, at times in our lives, feel like we are completely alone, that we have been cast adrift and there’s nothing that we can do to get back connected to people. That is one of the reasons why I think that kind of setup is so seductive to us as readers and as people who go to movies.
That’s why the movie Alien was so great. There was something really creepy about it at the beginning because you’re like, “Ooh, it’s this spaceship. There are these people locked on this spaceship. They don’t know where they are,” and then as I was talking about at the beginning of this with the crime story, talk about discovery of the crime. In that movie, the discovery of the crime – and I’m just going to say it because everybody has seen this movie and if they haven’t, they have to – is when that alien comes out of the guy’s stomach, right?
Tim: I have to admit I haven’t seen it.
Shawn: Oh my gosh. You have to see it.
Tim: I’m terrified of seeing it. I don’t like scary movies.
Shawn: Oh, okay.
Tim: Alien movies and any kind of haunting spirit movies I can’t handle for some reason. Here’s what I don’t like. I don’t like no rules. Sometimes it just bothers me, because there are some movies or books where all this weird stuff is going on, and I’m trying to figure out what’s really happening and towards the end, they’re like, “Oh, it’s aliens.” You’re like, “That’s not fair because aliens can just do anything.”
But I also don’t like the unsettling feeling that literally anything could happen next because you can just say, “Oh, it’s because it’s aliens,” or “Oh, it’s because it’s this haunted TV.”
Shawn: I know exactly what you’re talking about, but in the really great ones, there are rules for the aliens. The beauty of Alien the movie is that the lead character has to figure out the rule of that alien. It’s this seemingly indestructible force, but she has to figure out how to defeat it. Oh, it’s great. It’s really not about aliens. It’s one of the greatest alien creatures ever invented, and it’s terrifying.
Tim: It’s my own fault I don’t know yet.
Shawn: I don’t know if I want to ruin it for you.
Tim: I’ve heard of that scene where isn’t he laid out on the table and then, you were just starting to say, it basically eats its way out of him?
Shawn: Here’s what happens. This spaceship is in the middle of space, nowhere. They all wake up. They’re given this mission by command control on Earth: “Go to this planet, get these pods, and then bring them back.” So they go to the planet.
The great thing about this is that this is like a blue-collar spaceship. These people are blue-collar guys who are like truckers. The whole milieu is not like 2001 where everybody is these really high intellectual people. These are just blue-collar workers.
One of the guys goes down to this planet. He gets the pod, and as he’s trying to get the pod, this thing snaps on his helmet, and they can’t get it off the helmet. Eventually, they free him from this thing, and they bring him on board. It’s like, “Wow, that was a close one. Aw geez, everything’s cool. We’re going to have to radio back to Earth that we couldn’t pick out the pods but at least Jim’s feeling okay.” Jim’s like, “Wow, that was really close. I am starving. Let’s all go to the galley and get dinner.”
The whole crew goes down to get dinner. The viewer is starting to feel relaxed. They’re having dinner talk that blue-collar guys would have. Everybody’s making fun of each other, and the guy’s laughing really hard because it’s a funny story.
Then he has that moment that we all have, we get something in our throat. It gets caught and he’s sort of choking. It escalates, and it escalates, and it’s stranger and stranger and he just can’t breathe. So they lay him out on the table and they’re like, “What’s wrong with him?” They bring the medical officer over and they’re trying to get this thing out of this guy’s throat.
What you discover is that this alien has gone into his esophagus and has grown in his body. All of a sudden, this thing bursts out of his stomach. That’s the discovery of the crime. It is shocking. It is so shocking. It’s so innovative and brilliantly done.
That’s an obligatory scene that has been so picked over, and thought through, and innovated that we don’t even recognize it as an obligatory scene. That’s the “discovery of the crime” scene in a crime story.
That’s what I talk about. It was an old partner of Steven Pressfield’s, his screenwriting partner, who wrote Alien. I forget his name. I can’t believe it. I forget his name. But I could sort of imagine him sitting around spitballing with his writing partner at the time and saying, “What are we going to do about the ‘discovery of the body’ scene?” or “How are we going to make this interesting?”
Then he goes, “I know what. Why don’t we have them eating dinner, and everybody’s having fun, and then the thing rips out of his stomach?” Then they’re like, “Yeah, there’s something to that,” and then they build the scene around that general idea. This is what I’m suggesting to get your creative juices going.
For example, for you, for your inciting incident, think about “Maybe the inciting incident for my story is the discovery that we are, for all intents and purposes, alone. We have no communication back to the islands or back to land, and our ship is basically GPS-less. We have no form of communication with anybody else. Holy cow, what are we going to do now?”
That could be the thing that you want to tackle for next week. How do you make that scene unique? How do you discover that information in a way that is going to make the reader say, “Oh my gosh. What’s going to happen next?”
Tim: Okay. Huh.
Shawn: I’ve really ruined it for you.
Tim: No, now I’m like, “Okay, I can’t think about that yet.” Now I’m like, “Okay, I have to go. I have to go start writing this.” It’s interesting.
Shawn: Well, that’s good. It’s fun to get a little problem like that, because you have a problem now in your brain that you can noodle over right? It’s such that you kind of want to stop what you’re doing now and give that some energy. That’s what I think you need to do when you’re starting to write your story. Give yourself something to chew on. Give yourself a task that is going to inspire to do something unique.
You know what you need to do. You know in your scene, at some point in your story, you need the people on that ship to discover that they are rudderless, they have no engines, they’re just floating, and they have no idea where they are. It’s almost like Cast Away at sea.
How are all the people on that ship going to react to that information? Who is going to discover it? Who is going keep their head? Who isn’t going to keep their head? What are they going to do?
It’s like that great book “The Martian.” That whole book is about this guy coping with this impossible situation. “Okay, here I am on Mars. Everybody thinks I’m dead. How am I going to survive as long as possible? Let me think about that.”
Tim: It was interesting, because I actually read that book within months of it being self-published originally. I’ve seen the movie now, which was fantastic, and as somebody who normally hates movies that are done on books, it was so well done. It really stayed true to the book.
I don’t want to ruin it now because it’s a relatively new movie, but I walked through that in my head as I was watching. Right after the movie, I was thinking through the beginning, the middle build, and then the ending payoff. It was just interesting.
Shawn: What’s so great about that book and that story… I’d be the first one to fall into the trap of overcomplicating things to the point of where it gets so complicated that…
Tim: …It’s not fun anymore.
Shawn: Yes, you just despair, right? What’s so great about that book and about so many of the best stories ever told is that it’s a very simple premise. “What would happen if you were stranded on Mars? What would you do?”
Andy Weir – I think – is the writer. He probably said to himself, “That’s kind of cool. I wonder what I would do if I were stranded on Mars and I had these things. Well, I’d need to get food. How would I do that? Well, let me do some research about what’s on Mars.”
He also knows just by that very premise, what’s his ending payoff? Is he going to get off the planet, or isn’t he? Is he going to survive, or is he not? That simple premise is what drives that entire book, that entire movie, and we love it because it’s a very, very simple premise.
Tim: I think it’s that example because one of the things when I read “The Story Grid,” what do you say, it’s the “inevitable but surprising” end.
Tim: That is a perfect example of the “inevitable but surprising” end.
Tim: You know from the moment the movie starts where we’re heading is whether or not he gets off Mars and gets home. You know, but still at the end, the ending still got me.
Shawn: There’s no shame in knowing your ending at the beginning. In fact, you really do want to know. If you’re writing a crime story, you know your ending. Are they going to find the person who did the crime and bring them to justice, or are they not? You have two choices there, and the reader knows that, too. It doesn’t mean that it’s going to be boring to write.
Getting that surprising part is really the crucial part. I don’t know that anybody is able to really nail that perfectly until they’ve really almost gone to the ends of their ability to think to figure it out.
I suggest just do something. Come up with a solution, and make it better with each draft. That goes with each scene, too. Don’t kill yourself if you write a cheesy scene. So what? Nobody’s going to read it. It doesn’t matter if it’s not so good. You know it’s not so good, so make it better.
How could you make it better? “Well, let’s see. Maybe there’s not enough conflict here. Let me look at that. You’re right. Nobody’s really doing anything here. They’re just reacting to the weather gauge. That’s not so good. Maybe somebody should have a fight.”
All of these things that I’m verbalizing are the fun part of writing, because it’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle and you’re the one who creates the puzzle and the one who puts it together, too.
Tim: I want to get particular here. Let’s say I write my first draft of the inciting incident of my story, and you say, “It probably sucks. It’s going to take you ten times. You have to tweak it.” Should I write it and then wait a day or wait three days? How long should I wait?
Then when I go back and critique it, what am I looking for? Am I looking for “This feels off, or this is wrong. I need to redo this”? What am I trying to do with each of these iterations of the draft, and how do I go about making sure I’m making it better instead of just getting lost in the weeds?
Shawn: That’s a really, really good question. What I would suggest is it depends on the kind of writer you are. One thing to do would be to write out very simple sentences for each specific scenario. Like I do in the book, I try to boil down entire scenes into as few words as possible. What you could do is boil down your ideas.
For instance, the opening scene of “The Silence of the Lambs” is FBI recruit gets asked to do a job. Starling asked to do job. How do you do that scene? Well, let’s see. Thomas Harris, he could have had Starling come to the cafeteria and ask her there. That’s one. He would have written down, “Starling goes to cafeteria to meet with Jack Crawford.”
The second idea would be “Jack Crawford goes to Starling’s dorm room to ask her to take the job.” “Jack Crawford has his secretary ask her to take the job.” “Jack Crawford brings her to his office to ask to take the job.”
Eventually what Thomas Harris came to, the conclusion was he wanted to create something that was interesting that would really show the reader the different roles that each of these characters would play.
What he eventually decided to do is he was going to have Starling called from the shooting range or whatever it was, so she would have to come in running from the outdoors, and she would have to go underground to the behavioral science unit, and when she entered that room, she wasn’t going to go in front of a desk and say to a secretary, “Hi, Mr. Crawford asked me to come.”
He cut all that crap out. We don’t want to see the shoe leather of a recruit coming in to talk to the boss. In fact, what he did is he had the entire room empty because it’s after hours. Nobody’s working but Jack Crawford, and Crawford’s not in his office. He’s out in the bullpen area and he’s looking through files. So she comes in and there’s the boss right there.
What Harris is saying to the reader is we have a boss who is treating this like an errand, like he’s going through paperwork, like, “Oh right, Starling, can you go interview the craziest serial killer in the history of humankind for me?” He’s trying to play it off as this casual thing when in reality, he is desperate to get information from Hannibal Lecter and this is his last best hope.
Jack Crawford is saying to himself, “I need to get this girl who Lecter will obviously find interesting to look at to go interview Lecter. How am I going to get her to do that without seeming like I’m desperate?”
All of these things played into how Thomas Harris constructed that scene. He didn’t want to do it in a cafeteria. What, they’re going to be eating scrambled eggs while he asks her to go interview Hannibal Lecter?
These are the things that you need to think about when you’re constructing the scene. What I’m saying is that I bet Thomas Harris did have the cafeteria scene – he started there – and maybe he did have her come in and sit outside a very big office with a secretary and phones going off, like all those clichés we have in our head of the big interview.
It was probably the tenth time when he was like, “You know what? That’s not the way it would work, because what he’s asking her to do is basically crazy and he knows some things about her because she took his class at the University of Virginia a year ago and then came to the FBI.” So Harris knows all these things and they’re starting to come to him.
This is why I think it’s fun to start with an obligatory scene, because the world is wide open to you when you’re doing this. You might think your lead character is one way when you’re starting this little exercise I’m giving you. You’ll be like, “You know what? Screw it. I’m going to try something different. Maybe it’s not a man who’s the lead character. Maybe it’s a woman. Maybe she’s divorced and she’s the captain of the ship.” I’m just making all this stuff up.
But what I’m saying is that what you want to do is have fun and don’t rein yourself in. What you’re going to discover is that you’ll start eliminating things just out of your own gut. Yes, you’re right. You might write a scene and say, “This is perfect,” and you’ll put it on your file on your computer. Then you’ll go and you’ll hang out with your kids. You’ll go to bed and the next morning, you’ll wake up, look at it and say, “This is terrible.”
At that point, what you shouldn’t do is think you’re terrible, because that might not be the perfect scene but what it is, it’s a starting point. Then you’ll say to yourself, “What’s terrible about it? I know, obviously, what’s going to happen just from the setup.” That’s what you’ll say to yourself. “How can I make it more mysterious? Maybe what they think is happening really isn’t happening,” that kind of thing.
The task would be for your scene, the discovery of being alone. That is the task of the scene that you’re going to write. They have to discover on that ship that they have no communication whatsoever with anybody. How are you going to make that interesting? Maybe they discover that all their GPS units go out or the radios don’t work out.
Tim: I was originally thinking of the opening scene would be the first attempt at the lead character’s life but it’s unsuccessful and it could be construed as an accident. Do you think that’s a bad place to start? Do you think I should start with the “Oh my God, we’re all alone,” and then move into people getting knocked off or attacked?
Shawn: I’m of two minds about it. When you start with an action scene like that, where do you go from there? You’re cueing to the reader when you start with “an attempt on somebody’s life” scene that what you’re going to get from here on out, this guy, this character is going to watch his back the entire time and whether or not somebody kills him is going to be a very big driving force of the narrative. You need to make sure in your mind, if that’s what you want to lead with, that this is really going to be the controlling force of the story.
Obviously, whatever story you’re writing is going to have a life and death value if you’re going to lead with that. I’m not saying not to do that. If it seems like an accident… That’s a lot of stuff to convey very early on in the story, so my suggestion would be to try to go with something that just doesn’t seem right – it’s mysterious – so that you can hook the reader with something that is interesting, they sort of understand the world, but they’re not really sure what’s going to happen next.
Tim: Okay, because my original thought was to start building tension by having a couple things happen that could be accidents. In this case, if the GPS or whatever is out, it’s like, “Well, it goes out sometimes. We’ll get it fixed.” So everybody’s like, “Okay, that’s fine. Life is fine.” But that doesn’t seem very strong an inciting incident.
Shawn: No, that would be one that you say, “Okay, that’s a good start. What’s next? What am I going to do after that? Okay, the GPS doesn’t work. Okay, that’s more reporting than actually having anything happen. Let’s see. What else could I do?”
The discovery of being alone could be really, really terrifying. It could be a moment where they’re heading headlong into some sort of weather situation and the captain is well-prepared, she’s been through this before, she doesn’t really need all the instruments, she’s going through her gut, and she knows “What we need to do is we have to go and find this particular bay off this island and hide out there before the hurricane comes.”
So they’re preparing to make that journey and the instruments go out. She’s like, “Not to worry. I know where we’re going. Bear at this direction and we’re going to go at 30 knots and we’re going to do that for three hours, and then we’re going to see the coast of the island. I know that because this is my 75th time I’ve been doing this course. Everybody chill out. When we get to the island, it’s going to be cool. There’s a radio station there. Everything is cool.”
So they set forth on that course and they go for an hour. Everybody’s having fun, and then something else happens. Then finally at the end, they’ve been going for nine hours and there is still no sight of that island. They ask the captain, “What’s going on? You said we would reach this island in three hours, and it’s now nine hours,” and she doesn’t have any idea.
That’s the end of the chapter, because then you’re building progressively. There’s a problem, somebody’s going to solve it. That problem is solved, things are moving well. Another problem arises; it seems to be solved too. Another problem arises; that one’s solved too. This person is in great command. She knows exactly what she’s doing and then – bang – “Captain, what’s going on?” “I have no idea. I don’t know what’s going on.” Something like that.
This is right off the top of my head, Tim.
Tim: In “The Story Grid,” you talk about there needs to be the beginning, middle build, and payoff of the book, but then there needs to be an inciting incident so the beginning, middle, and end of each act, and then down to each scene, so you’re describing that progression in that inciting incident scene.
Shawn: Right. Exactly. These are all sort of like those Russian doll things.
Tim: Yes, where they stack inside of each other.
Shawn: Yes, they’re all stacked inside of each other. The brilliant, beautiful, wonderful thing about story is that you use the principles at every level of story. You use them from the beat to the scene to the sequence to the act to the subplot to the global story, and they all have the same form. They all begin with something that throws the lead character or the group of characters, their lives, out of balance.
The weather; maybe there’s a hurricane coming. I’m just using obvious ideas here. It opens with gale-force winds due in 15 hours. “What are we going to do?” That’s the inciting incident so that’s the problem. They need to get back to normal.
The captain says, “Here’s the solution. I know this island if we head due west. Set the course.” Well, the course things aren’t working. “What are we going to do now? Okay, well give me the sexton.” The sexton isn’t here. Why not? We had to throw it overboard when the ship… – all these things, and so she shows, through her actions, that she is extremely capable and that these people don’t have anything to worry about as long as this woman is on the ship.
I have a perfect ending for you now. They’re on the ship and she’s given these perfect directions and their due head course, and instead of three hours, it’s three and a half hours. One of the first mates goes, “Go see the captain. The island is nowhere in course. The GPS is out. The radar is out. We have no clue. Could you please find her and go to her cabin?” They go to her cabin and she’s dead. End of chapter.
That’s a good beginning inciting incident, because the person who is going to solve all the problems is dead and there they are, they’re in the middle of nowhere. The people who are supposed to be in charge, who knows? They don’t know. They’ve been handing over their power to this captain their entire lives. Now what are you going to do? Who’s going to take charge? Who’s going to become the hero? Who’s going to become the villain? What do people want? You know what I’m saying?
If you play with these little ideas, you say to yourself, “Oh right, I’ll kill the protagonist in the inciting incident of my book. I was going to have this woman as the captain of this thing, but as I was walking it through in my head, the perfect setup is that she’s the only one who can save them and then she dies. She’s been murdered. Who killed her?”
These are the kinds of things that I think can get you juiced up and excited to go and say, “Okay, I have a killer inciting incident for my story. Let me go to my Foolscap Global Story Grid, and now I’m just going to bang out the rest of this stuff so that I have a general map of where to go from here.”
I’m not going to torture myself over it. I’m going to answer as many of these questions as I can. If I’m a little fuzzy on something, I’m going to give myself a break and say, “Fuzzy, not really totally sure yet,” and then when I get stuck on my next scene, or the scene after that, or the scene after that, then I can go back to this and remember “Oh, okay. That’s what I wanted to do. Here’s why that’s not going to work. Now I know,” and then you can fix it.
It’s like you have a map that will take you from New York to California and you’re on I-80 or whatever it is, you’re on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and you look up ahead and say, “Pennsylvania Turnpike closed for the next nine hours.” Well, you have to get off the exit. You’re going to find a different way, but you’re still going to California, right?
Tim: Right. I want to at least start the Foolscap, because we’ve talked about everything before we got there, which is perfect. But I want to talk a little bit about what it is, and then we can dive into it more next week.
In “The Story Grid,” you have the six questions that an editor is asking. What’s the genre? What are the conventions and obligatory scenes? The point of view? What are the objects of desire? The controlling theme? The beginning hook, middle build, and ending payoff? The Foolscap is basically something that allows you to map all that out ahead of time.
Shawn: Exactly. You nailed it.
Tim: Where did you get this thing? Did you come up with the six questions were like, “Oh. Here, you can put it on one piece of paper”? Where did you get this from?
Shawn: Well, I got it from years of editing book after book after book of New York publishing-level quality fiction. What I discovered is that in order for myself to be able to communicate with a writer and explain to them why I think a certain scene or why two-thirds of their book is a problem, I needed to be very, very literal with them.
I needed to say to them, “Well, you, Jim Smith, have written nine New York Times bestselling serial-killer thrillers, right?”
He’ll say yes.
Then I’ll say, “Well, you know as well as I do that you have to have a scene in there where there’s an amazing MacGuffin scene or a red herring scene.”
He’ll say, “Oh yes. You mean like in a red herring, you have to have the reader believe one thing and actually turn it to be something else, so it’s a false clue, right?”
I’d go, “Yeah, that’s exactly right.”
As I was doing this year after year after year for 15 years, I said, “There are these six main questions that I need to understand and have answers to before I can have a proper dialogue with the writer. If I can understand these and I can talk to him about it or talk to her about it and we can come to the same conclusions, it will be much easier to fix their book than to just say things like, ‘Well, the middle’s a little slow.’ That just doesn’t help.”
It is through all of that work that I did that I came up with these six questions, and I always had this one sheet of paper where I would track the global story. What’s the beginning, what’s the middle and what’s the end – the beginning hook, middle build, and the ending payoff?
Whenever I’m given a project to edit, I answer all these questions myself and if there are problems in there, I can pull out this piece of paper and sit down with the writer over a cup of coffee and say, “Look here. In the middle…”
That’s where this came from. This was a way to communicate my expertise to a writer who, they’ve been working on this thing for years, it’s really hard work, and they can’t see the forest through the trees sometimes.
The Foolscap Global Story Grid is a way for them to get out of all that scene-by-scene work, and character development, and all of that stuff, and really just boil it down to one page: what are the main goals of this story, and how are you going to solve the problems?
Tim: Should I be able to fill this out before I start – start the finish, fill out the Foolscap?
Shawn: I think at the very least what you want to do is to get the top quarter of it done. What I mean by that is you want to know what your external genre is. Are you writing a western? I mean primarily. What would be the movie poster of your story? Is it a love story? Is it a romantic comedy? Is it a war movie? What would you put on a poster that would indicate to people what this story is?
If it’s a coming of age story, the poster would probably be character driven in a small town or something. That’s fine, but the coming of age story is the education plot, which is an internal genre, so that would be your global plot for the internal genre but the external genre is going to be something like a crime story, a war story, a thriller, a horror, performance, all of that kind of stuff.
You want to get that in your head and put it down on paper so that you can always go back to it and say, “Wait a minute. I’m really getting overwhelmed with this subplot. What is this really about? Oh right, this is a thriller. Okay.” That’s the most important thing to put down under external genre. Make your choice. Put it down.
The second thing is you want to know what’s the core value at stake in the story? Value, it’s not like a political family values kind of question. A value means it has gradations. It has pulls. There’s love and hate. There’s truth and lies. There’s wisdom and ignorance.
Tim: Back to Rocky, the external genre would be the performance genre. Then the value at stake, would it be winning or losing?
Shawn: It could be.
Tim: Because we’re talking external. Because internal, it’s different. What would that be? I should be able to answer this. Let’s see.
Shawn: Shame and honor.
Tim: Okay, and that would be morality?
Shawn: The great thing about Rocky and the great thing about a lot of stories is that a lot of the classifications that I write about in “The Story Grid” are a little bit fluid, right?
Shawn: You can look at Rocky as a status rise of the mook – from mook to middle-class guy. It could be a status genre, or it could be an education plot. Somebody who is a little bit ignorant is now no longer ignorant; he’s worldly. Or you can look at it like I do, as a redemption plot. A redemption plot moves from being dishonorable. It’s a moral journey – to make it as simple as possible – moving from bad to good. The redemption plot in Rocky has a lot to do with honor and shame.
Tim: What would the external value be for that then?
Shawn: The external value is a performance sports story. It’s performance boxing or performance sports. That movie Whiplash would be performance music.
Tim: Right, but that’s the genre. That’s not the value at stake, right?
Shawn: Oh, the external value at stake would be – I believe – winning or losing, or shame and honor. Shame and honor, that would be an internal value at stake.
Tim: Right, and then when we throw something like James Bond at it, the external value would just be basic life and death.
Tim: Okay. Several episodes ago, we were talking about How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, a romantic comedy. The external value would be love and hate?
Tim: Okay, I’m starting to understand this a little bit. I feel like until I can see it in existing things, I won’t be able to see it in my own.
Shawn: No, absolutely. Part of the fun of all this stuff is looking at your favorite stories and saying, “What would the external genre be? Is there an internal genre? What would that be, and what would be the values at stake in that?”
Crime stories are great because it’s always about justice. That’s the value at stake. Thrillers are life and death, the same with action stories. Horror is life and death to the nth degree. It’s the “fate worse than death” damnation. Thrillers can approach that too. Love and hate is the value. Performance and war, war stories, a lot of them are about shame and honor. They’re about brotherhood, being selfish or part of something larger than yourself.
Values are really important because to understand what the value is, it allows you to help understand how you’re going to use your scenes to arc the change of your lead character. At the beginning of Rocky, Rocky is kind of a loser, he’s okay with the way his life is even though it’s cheesy and he does these terrible fights, he lives in a squalid apartment, and he works for the mob as a muscleman. He’s sort of given up. He thinks he’s a loser, and he’s living like a loser.
By the end of Rocky, he has self-respect. He’s regained his sense of honor and dignity. He might have lost – he lost the external genre, he lost the fight – but he won the internal genre. That was getting his soul back, his sense of self, his belief in himself.
These are important factors to know when you’re writing your story because you’re going to know “Well, my external story is going to end positive. Maybe I want my internal story to end negative. The person who gets the big job learns that they had to sell their soul to get it, or the person who loses the big thing wins internally by understanding more about the truth of themselves.”
Tim: The movie you keep talking about, Kramer vs. Kramer, that would be that. He lost the external genre in the end but he won the internal.
Shawn: Exactly. That’s a beautiful story.
Tim: Knowing that from the beginning and answering that from the beginning, it helps you scene by scene know the general direction I should be heading, like the map thing. “Even if I can’t stay on the interstates, as long as I’m heading west, I’m eventually going to get somewhere near California.”
Shawn: Exactly. The other thing it’ll do is it’ll keep you away from cliché. Let’s bring up Kramer vs. Kramer again. Say Kramer vs. Kramer ended where not only does Dustin Hoffman get his son back but he gets a big job at the advertising agency, too, and he’s now the head of the advertising agency. That would be a great ending, right? He wins the external and he wins the internal. Guess what? Nobody’s going to like that story because they’re going to say, “They wouldn’t happen. You can’t have both things.”
If you’re building up to the point that external material life is something that sucks you away from your relationships, like that story did, and then you reward the guy with some material thing at the end as well, it just doesn’t ring true. Knowing what your external and internal genres are is really going to be helpful because it’ll keep you away from making mistakes.
Here’s a cheat sheet. Don’t have both of them. They always have to be sort of yin-and-yanging. At the end of the first act, say your external genre opens negative – somebody loses their job – and the internal genre is negative, too. At the end of act one, you’re going to want your external to move a little bit positive so it’s positive and your internal genre to remain negative. Then you want to flip them.
Remember we were talking about something has to be surprising but inevitable? This is how you do the surprising part. You look at the shifts of the values and the polarity and say, “Am I mixing this up in a way that’s interesting?”
Tim: Thanks, as always, for listening to The Story Grid Podcast. This has been Episode 5, and so far, Episode 4 has been our most successful episode. Some of you are sharing it with your friends and telling other authors. I really appreciate the help.
You’re definitely going to want to tune in next week because it is when Shawn rips apart the first scene I actually try to write. It’s pretty excruciating to go through on my end, but I did it for you so that we can all learn together. You’re definitely going to want to tune in for Episode 6.
As always, we can use your help getting the word out about the podcast. The ways to do that are to first just tell a friend. If there are other authors in your life, in a Facebook group, a forum, or just a group that you get together with on a regular basis, tell them about The Story Grid Podcast. Make sure they subscribe and listen to it. Make sure you subscribe, as well. You can do that in iTunes, Stitcher, or your favorite podcasting app.
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Thanks again for listening, and we will see you next week for Episode 6 of The Story Grid Podcast.