Your Brother is in Trouble…We Need Your Help

In this week’s episode of The Story Grid podcast, after some passionate positions we both take about the necessity of being open to mentorship, we’re noodling around the notion that your global inciting incident must be compelling and that your global story climax (the payoff of the inciting incident setup) must be both surprising and inevitable.

One way to think of this is that your inciting incident especially in an Action or Horror or Thriller (any genre in which the villain sets the agenda with his/her active pursuit of their object of desire in the inciting incident) is that it’s a lie.  And that one payoff of the climax of the story will reveal the truth.

If you do this setup and payoff well, the reader will be surprised to discover the truth and realize how easy it is to be taken in by prevaricating baddies in this world.  Inevitability (that other story requirement)  comes into the equation when the protagonist comes to the realization that she’s been living a lie and that she can’t do that any longer. It’s inevitable that faced with overwhelming evidence of mendacity…that we must change our ways and leave whatever dark arena we’ve been lurking inside (be it a corporation, a sports team, a political party, a relationship, or even a family).

Tim’s working on a story with the basic premise/inciting incident that a stranger knocks on his protagonist’s door. He tells her that he has information that her brother is in trouble and that the only one who can save him is her.

Now in the simplest of terms, we know that stories are about change.  So the end of this story should reveal to the protagonist that her brother was never really in trouble and that her help was not what was really needed…those were lies.  It was her very being/soul that the villain desired to possess.  (Tim’s writing a thriller, so we know that the protagonist must morph into the victim by story’s end)

The inciting incident is a ruse to get the protagonist to eventually surrender to the villain’s agenda.

Inciting incidents in action/horror/thriller/villain driven stories are like a marketer’s promise that they have the perfect solution for that uncontrollable dandruff…  The marketer tells a little lie to get you to do what they want…part with your money.

This Global Inciting Incident as setup for one of your Global Climax payoffs is stuff you need to figure out before you bang out 100,000 words.  Knowing where you are beginning and where you will generally end up is a surefire way to increase your odds of writing a story that works.

Anywho…click the play button below to listen or just read the transcript that follows.

[0:00:00.6] TG: Hello and Welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host Tim Grahl and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne, he is an editor with 25 plus years’ experience, he is the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and he is helping me as I flail around and figure out how to tell great stories.


In this episode, we’re working on narrowing down to an outline that I can actually use to write my second draft, which is ending up to be basically second version of the first draft depending on how you look at it. Anyway, through this discussion, even though we’re talking specifically about my book, I hope that you’re learning the kinds of questions you should be asking of your book and you and your editor should be working through as well.


About character development, their wants and needs inside of the book, talking through the polarity shifts of positive and negative value shifts and scenes and then big swaths of your book and also just talking through overcoming clichés, overcoming kind of basic normal things that every author deals with. As you go through this, I hope that you’re taking notes and that it’s helping you get ready to craft the perfect outline for your next book as well.


Let’s jump in and get started.




[0:01:29.6] TG: Shawn, I want to talk and start first with an email I got from one of our listeners. I don’t want to read the entire thing but I’m going to try to sum it up which is basically with all of our discussions around my stories and my story ideas and you giving me feedback and changing them and molding them and even pointing me towards a genre. Are you overriding my own artistry, are you pushing back on me like a bad art teacher that makes me paint a bowl of fruit when I want to paint something else?


I’m sure that she is not the only listener that’s thinking this, which is basically, why won’t Shawn just let Tim write the book he wants to write? So I showed you the email and I would love to just get your thoughts on why are you pushing me so hard and I have some opinions on this I want to share but I’ll let you talk first on it. But why aren’t you just letting me write the book I want to write, why are you being so hard on all of my ideas, why are you pushing back on this? Overall, what is your kind of answer to the email, because I showed you the whole thing?


[0:02:50.3] SC: Okay, my job, the way I see it is to help writers write books that work. When I say a book that works, what I mean by that is that other people want to read it, right? That it’s something that goes beyond the individual. So is it terrible for somebody to write their own stuff and follow whatever their heart course tells them to? Absolutely not, go ahead.


But you also have to understand that when you do that, you have a very limited audience, probably you have an audience of one and that audience is yourself. What I find is that when people come to me and they say, “You’re screwing up my muse, you’re taking the things that I want to write and you’re manipulating them and twisting them and just you’re feeding me your own ideas and I don’t want to write your book Shawn, I want to write my book.”


My answer to that is, “Nobody wants to read your shit.” That’s something that Steve Pressfield and I talk about a lot. Now, Steve wrote a book called The War of Art. Now The War of Art is all about confronting something that he calls resistance. What resistance is, is this insidious little bastard inside all of us that tells us things that are lies. One of the great lies resistance tells us is that if you get help from anybody else or you listen to anybody else, that the work isn’t really yours.


The only way to create something authentic is if you created yourself and you get no help and you take no ideas from anybody else. I think that is the biggest crock of shit that you can actually tell yourself. Because the fact remains this. There is a reason why all of us attached to individual stories. And I say this over and over and over again, “Specificity breeds universality.” But the specificity has to be in the realm of the story experience. The myths that we have grown so close to, that we use to direct our every day life are thousands and thousands and thousands of years old.


There is a reason why I read Plato, there is a reason why I read Aristotle, there is a reason why I read Joseph Campbell when I was figuring all this stuff out and no, I’m not the only one who has figured it out, there are plenty of other people. The story grid methodology is something I’ve created to solve a problem that I had, which was to help writers identify the problems in their work and to help them solve those problems and one of the things that I offer as a service, is to provide solutions to the problems that I raise in somebody’s work.


When I say, “Tim, that’s not going to work, try this,” and you say, “Well I don’t understand the difference between what I wrote and what you wrote,” I give you an answer. I say, “The reason why yours doesn’t work and the reason why mine does work is the following: you have to have to have one central heroic figure, you can’t dilute the core protagonist in the reader.” Because then the reader’s going to say, “Wait a minute, I thought this story was about this person and now it’s sort of about this person.”


So that is an actual answer to a question that is a problem. Whether or not you decide to go with whatever solution I offer you is absolutely up to you. But the thing is, there’s something in the execution that is far more important than the solution. What do I mean by that? What I mean by that is, I can say, “Tim, do a scene like this.” I can give you two sentences on a scene. “It begins this way, it ends up this way and here is the crisis and the climax. Go.”


I give the exact same direction to Joe Schmo from Cocomo. The two of you are going to write completely different scenes because you’re going to make your own creative choices, executing that thematic idea. Here is my answer to people that say, “You know man, I operate my own way and I don’t want to take anything from anybody else because I’m going to sit and watch the tea leaves and wait for the muse to come to me and speak to me directly. I don’t want to hear from your muse man, I want to listen to my own.”


What I say to that is, “That is resistance.” I’m going to end my argument with a joke, and here is the joke. There is an old woman and her son comes to her and he says, “Mom, there is a flood coming, there’s going to be a torrential rain and they say we’re going to have floods that are just going to take over the entire valley, you have to get out now.” The mother says to the son, “Son, I believe in that the good Lord will provide and I’m going to stay home.” The son begs and begs and she won’t be moved so he leaves and he takes his family and he goes out of town and here comes the rains and the rains are lifting and lifting.


A man comes buy on a boat. The woman’s on the second floor window and he says to her, “Lady, get in the boat and she says, no, the Lord will provide.” Okay, the floods keep coming higher and higher, now she’s on the roof, a helicopter comes by and they lower a rope down to her and they said, “Lady, grab the rope.” She says, “No, no, no. The Lord will provide, I believe.” Of course she drowns and dies.


When she’s at the pearly gates and she says to the angel Gabriel, “Why, why has the Lord forsaken me?” The angel Gabriel says to her, “Lady, what do you want? He sent your son, he sent a boat, and he sent a helicopter. Why didn’t you jump on one of those?” That’s exactly the problem that people have who get locked into this whole thing, anytime I take an idea from somebody else, I’m being inauthentic. You need to open yourself to the great possibilities and to help that is going to come your way. Don’t throw it away because you think you’re going to be a fraud by using it.


[0:09:34.5] TG: Yeah, I’d like to give my take on this too, which is a little bit more practical which tends to be my way of looking at things. I look at it like this: so if I wanted to become a painter and you took me to my local art shop where they have a thousand different paint brushers and a thousand different colors of paint and 50 different types of paint and a hundred different types of canvases and you said, “Okay, get started.” I would be so completely overwhelmed that I couldn’t do anything.


But if I joined an art class or a painting class and the teacher was like, “Okay, you’re going to use this paintbrush, you’re going to use this paint and you’re going to use this canvas and you’re going to paint a bowl of fruit.” Now, the bowl of fruit isn’t my muse, it didn’t come from me, I didn’t use that but inside of those constraints, I can learn the principles of painting. Then once I’ve learned the principles of painting, I can then exercise those in my own creativity.


It’s like if my children, you know, we have a piano and my older son’s learning how to play, my younger son just bangs on it. And I don’t mind that my younger son just bangs on it and plays anything that he wants,8 but if he ever wants to learn how to play the piano, he will sit down and he will learn his scales. He will sit down and he will learn basic songs. The teacher will teach him the same thing, tens of thousands of people are being taught across this globe when it comes to playing the piano because you have to learn the basics before you can flex your creativity inside of those constraints.


So as I’ve taken your feedback and as my story has completely changed from what I originally thought and the genre is changing and all this kind of stuff, I look at it that way. I have to submit myself to a teacher, learn the basics and one day, I’ll be able to sit down and write whatever I want because I’ll have taken those basics and those scales of writing and all of that is staying, and they’ll be in my bones and I’ll do them automatically and so I can sit down and my story will fit, will work because I know how to write a good story but right now, I don’t.


So I have to accept somebody else’s constraints in order to learn the craft, or like I talked about in the intro of last week’s episode where I don’t want to write an 80,000 word manuscript before I get any feedback. I want tighter feedback and that’s what we’re doing here. That’s how I’ve looked at this and that’s how I’ve, some may say justified, but that’s how I’ve kind of looked at this as like, it’s not me giving up on my creativity, it’s me submitting myself to the process of learning the basics so that in the future I’ll be able to flex my creativity in a bigger way. But if right now I flex my creativity, it’s going to sound like my seven year old banging on a piano.


That’s how I’ve kind of landed on that question. That said, how we’re kind of looking at the next couple of months is we’re going to do two more episodes of kind of our standard way of doing this and then we’re basically taking a break for five weeks where we’re going to run some special episodes that I’m really excited about. We’re doing a Publishing 101 series. We mentioned a few weeks back about doing some episodes just about the publishing industry and Shawn and I have already recorded a couple of those and they’re fantastic and you’re going to love those.


We actually have two special episodes of me, Shawn and Steve Pressfield talking about resistance and beating resistance in Steve’s new book. So those are going to come out as well. Shawn and I’s goal for this week’s episode and next week’s episode is get me to a point where I have a foolscap that I can write my second draft on. That’s what we’re going to be working through here and I think it will be good for you as you’re listening as well because we want to take all this kind of, for me, excruciating last few weeks of going through stuff around the first draft and kind of nail some of this down so I can actually start working on a second draft. I’ve written basically nothing fiction wise since the first draft and so I want to get moving again on a second draft, that’s our goal here.


So Shawn, I’ve been thinking about your questions about, I have them here. You said I need to think about power dynamics and I need to think about the once. So what does my villain want? What does my hero want? What does my villain do to lure the victim into a trap and also, what does the villain want to take from the hero? So I’ve been thinking about this, I made a bunch of notes and still feel very flailing about this but I really like the idea of, I was ready to kind of give up the whole “my hero of resurrects”. But I really like what we landed on last week about the hero resurrect, she’s the only one that can come out of this thing alive.


So I’ve been thinking about the specificity of that, of how that would work but I don’t think that’s as important right now and the villain is going to really want that. Why can she do that and nobody else can including the villain. What I’m struggling with right now is the victim. The initial victim is her brother but last time we were talking, we were talking about making the victim — but we find out at the end of the beginning hook, he’s not actually the victim because he was luring her into this because that’s what the villain wanted. I’m struggling a little bit about who the victim should be and then we can get into some specificity about the world too. I’d love to kind of hear your thoughts on that about where I should be going with that.


[0:16:04.1] SC: Okay, well the thing that you’re writing — let’s just take a small step back and go over the genre again. You’re writing a thriller set in the world of what they call LitRPG, which is literary role playing game genre. That might sound strange to everybody but it’s a very up and coming interesting genre that has evolved over the last 20, 25 years. It started sort of with a book called Neuromancer, probably it even started before that with Phillip K. Dick.


But William Gibson’s Neuromancer was sort of the big break out declaration of new genre and that was in the late 80’s or early 90’s and then the next book that sort of took the world by storm in this arena was Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson and just last year or the year before, there was a book called Ready Player One by Earnest Cline I believe his name is. All of this books were extremely successful.


This is a genre that’s up and coming for a number of reasons, I can give you my philosophical reasons why I think it’s becoming something that is underserved in the market place but we decided a couple of weeks ago that this would be a good arena for you Tim because you have an expertise in software and programming, et cetera that you could bring to the table while you’re writing.


Now, your questions about who they hero is, who the victim is and who the villain is, this is really important stuff to figure out before you go forward. Let’s just review what we decided before. Generally there is a villain and the villain wants something from the hero and what the villain wants is what begins and starts the inciting incident of our entire story.


So using the stuff that you had written before in your first draft of your previous novel, we came up with this really great dynamic where you have a brother and a sister and a family. The brother disappeared and one day, a strange guy shows up on the porch of the sister’s house where she’s living with her family, she is a younger person, we haven’t really figured out exactly what age she is yet but we’re coming to either a young adult age or something of that sort.


Anyway, so a figure arrives and says, “Your brother’s in trouble, we need your help.” We immediately establish that there’s a victim from the inciting incident of the global story, the brother is the victim in the reader’s eye from page one. This is a great way to get the thing going. Because now we’ve established that somebody’s in jeopardy and there’s some evil force that has got him under their control. It sets forth the “want” of the hero.


Now, the want of the hero is what she is going to want, what she wants is the return of her brother so that her family dynamic goes back to the way it was, to the way things used to be. Great, we’ve got things going now. Now your question to me right now was, “Okay, that’s going to get me probably through the end of my beginning hook of my story. Who is going to become the victim after we establish that the brother is no longer the victim?” My answer to that is, “Guess what? It’s a genre convention.” In the thriller as I define it in my book and as many people define it. In the thriller, the hero eventually becomes the victim too.


So the hero transforms from the protagonist just trying on a course, set out to save a victim, transitions into the victim themselves. For example in silence of the lambs, Clarice Starling, she is out to save the life of a victim who is kidnapped by a terrible person who is going to kill her. That’s her goal, she wants to save that person. By the end of that story, she is actually in jeopardy. That killer is going to kill her, so she transitions from the hero to the victim. This is what you are going to want to do in your story. You’ve already set this up because what the villain is doing is he or she or who or whatever is setting up your hero to come in to this virtual world so that they can rob her of her immortality.


Now, what’s great about this is that she doesn’t even know that she has this gift. You can use that revelation, somebody’s going to say to her at some point in the story, “Well it’s obvious why the villain wants you here.” And she’ll be like, “What are you talking about?” “Well you’re the only one to survive death in the virtual world.” “Yeah, so? I thought everybody did.” “No, if you die in the virtual world, you die in real life. You are the only one who has died multiple times in the game and is yet still alive when you come out of the game. Most people who die in the game never leave the game, they’re dead. They die in real life as well as in the game.”


So you can use this setup because the reader is going to be saying to themselves throughout the beginning hook of your story, “What is this thing all about? I wonder if she’s going to get her brother back? I wonder if she’s going to get her brother back?” And guess what, she’s going to get her brother back and then you’re going to twist it. You’re going to make it, “Oh, well what’s going on really? Why was she brought in here?”


So you can use the suspense and this unknowingness of the reader to create narrative drive. So to answer your question, the victim will transition from the brother, probably it will remain the brother too throughout, in to the sister who is your hero. So the hero becomes the victim by the climax of your global story. Does that make sense?


[0:22:57.0] TG: Yes.


[0:22:58.8] SC: Okay.



[0:22:59.0] TG: Okay, again what I’m picturing is, I want her to be young enough that she actually thinks this will fix things because if she’s too old, she won’t actually think if her brother comes home, things will be fixed and I also want her to be young enough where her brother, even though he’s a bad guy, she still cannot not trust him.


[0:23:25.8] SC: Right, well the other thing is that the trick of these things is to make the bad guys — the reader has to understand, “Well I don’t know? Maybe if I was in that situation, I would do the same thing. Maybe he’s not such a bad guy, maybe?” So I think you’ve set that idea up with the definition of your universe and your universe, just to remind everybody, is this. There’s basically two societies in real life in Tim’s story.


There are the very wealthy people who are capable of movement from country to country and they’re sort of the 1%’ers of our universe today in real life. These are the people with so much money they can pretty much do whatever the hell they want and then there’s everybody else. Everybody else is very limited, they could only sort of stay in their own communities and the brother moved from the moot world, the world of all of us who aren’t part of the privileged, into the privileged world. He doesn’t want to go back.


[0:24:36.6] TG: I kind of see it as, there’s always people that work for the 1% that get a reward for that. I don’t see it as like he’s become one of these people, he’s become like an assistant or a butler or…


[0:24:54.1] SC: Right, an aspirational figure.


[0:24:55.9] TG: Yeah, where he gets to live in the houses, he gets to travel on the jets but he’s not in charge. At any moment, he could just be cut out and…


[0:25:04.1] SC: That’s great.


[0:25:04.1] TG: …sent back home.


[0:25:05.3] SC: yeah, it’s like Smithers in the Simpsons who works for the evil guy, I forget his name. Anyway, so what’s really great about this idea is that as we’re talking, you can sort of see these blobs of stories starting to take shape. You’re seeing, I think you have a pretty — you could probably map out that beginning hook section pretty easily. Not easily, but you could kind of figure it out, “It starts here and then it goes here and then it goes here.” You’re going to know the climax of your beginning hook is going to be the big reveal that the brother really isn’t in danger.


No, wait, we’re not really sure yet. It could be any number of things. Probably remember we also want to use the hero’s journey stuff. The climax of the beginning hook is usually the moment when the hero moves from the ordinary world into the extraordinary world. So it’s almost like she goes through that gate like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz or Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs when she gets to ride on that FBI plane to go to another world, that’s the moment that you really wanted to delineate very clearly, she’s no longer in Shitsville, she’s moving into the 1% territory.


Then your middle build is going to be a series of progressive complications that will drive your hero coming to the realization that all is lost. Essentially, she is going to realize, she’s not going to bring her brother back, she is not going to solve her family’s problems by bringing him back and not only that, if she doesn’t take one more step and confront the villain. She will actually hurt, not only herself, but all of those people back home.


[0:27:17.7] TG: Okay, so let me kind of talk this out a little bit. So what I was thinking was, something along the lines of she thinks she’s rescuing her brother, she gets there, she realizes she’s not but I was kind of thinking of her brother as like the screw-up drug addict brother that you just can’t help but help. You know what I mean? Every family has that and so what I feel like is once she’s there, he will spin it as, “Look, I’ve saved you, you get to be a part of this world with me.”


That begins the middle build where she is trying to come to terms with this new world and she actually sees the under belly of all the evil that they’re doing. That when it reaches this point of all is lost, which is she can no longer look the other way at the world that she’s been brought into.


[0:28:18.1] SC: That’s close, that’s getting there. Don’t forget your McGuffin though. Your McGuffin is the immortality.


[0:28:25.3] TG: Right.


[0:28:26.3] SC: So you want to tie in your McGuffin with her — now, we haven’t clearly stated this yet, so let me clearly state it now. The external genre that you are writing in is thriller. LitRPG is the sub-genre of thriller. Now, the internal genre that you’re writing in is a maturation plot. Now, what a maturation plot is, is the coming of age story, it’s a movement from naiveté, believing one, the world is one way and coming to the realization, no it’s not like that at all. There aren’t any simple solutions to — you can’t go home again, you can’t bring back the past.


So when you’re dealing with two genres and you really have to do this in a thriller because you want to be able for the reader to attach themselves very emotionally to the lead protagonist. The revelation that she is immortal and the revelation that all is lost has to gel at the same time. So when you look at my story grid for the Silence of the Lambs, you’ll see that all is lost moment for Clarice Starling is also the all is lost moment for the external genre of the thriller. Meaning she gets fired from the job. She can no longer help.


The FBI says, “Hey, yeah, go back to the FBI academy, you’re no longer wanted and if you show up on the scene again, you’re going to be kicked out of the academy and you’ll never become an FBI agent.” That also coincides with her realization that she’s been used by the FBI to lure Hannibal Lecter to give away all of his secrets. She’s damned herself intellectually, she’s got Hannibal Lecter in her head and she lost her job, basically. So the external and the internal both hit all is lost.


[0:31:00.5] TG: So my internal all is lost is going to be when she realizes this world that she’s been really fighting to hold onto mentally is not real? Between her brother, what’s really going on with this high society, that’s when she realizes there will never ever be her and her brother at home as a family again, that’s the internal all is lost, right?


[0:31:24.3] SC: Yes. It might even be more specific than that. Meaning, something terrible happens to her brother or something happens to her mother or father, I don’t know? But if you can make it very concrete that the family ain’t never getting back together again. There’s never going to be a nice Christmas again. I just want to take one small exception to something that you said earlier about, “Oh I want the character to be young because she believes that she can take back their family to get back together again by just bringing her brother home.”


Well you know what? I know 50, 60 year old people who believe that if they go home and hang out with their brothers and their cousins, everything’s going to be okay. The reality is that it’s not okay, the family broke up years and years and years ago and they’re lying to themselves and they’re living a lie that they can make their family lives better by just physically being in the same place as — anyway, all I’m saying is that we have a capacity to lie to ourselves at such a deep level that age really doesn’t come in to it.


[0:32:35.9] TG: I guess what I was thinking there because as we’ve talked about this LitRPG and you kind of hitting like, “Hey, use what you know, you know this world, you know this.” I’m thinking like well, I got a 10 year old at home and when I’m at school with him and stuff, I’m hanging out with other 10 and 11 year olds, I don’t remember what it’s like to be 15, 16 but I’m staring down the barrel of what it’s like to be 10 and 11.”


[0:33:03.6] SC: That’s a very difficult time and you brought that up last week. It’s a phantom.


[0:33:09.0] TG: I guess that’s what I was thinking.


[0:33:10.6] SC: I like it, yeah.


[0:33:11.1] TG: It goes into that young adult kind of space that we were talking about several weeks ago too.


[0:33:16.8] SC: Yeah, and I also think that there’s a level in our society where we just do not give children any real credit for having deep thoughts or having heroic abilities. The fact that you’re considering using a 10 year old as the lead protagonist and putting her in a place where she has to exhibit real fundamental courage and also heroic abilities is a good one because I think thematically, we need to understand that our children have a lot more power than we give them credit for.


Just back to your story and back to the intersection of the all is lost — the intersection of the all is lost moment in the external and the internal, that’s going to be the climax of your middle build. That is going to be the moment that’s going to transition into your ending payoff of your story. So to think about this moment and to know, “Okay, this is the moment where my character discovers that she’s immortal. Maybe that’s it? Maybe you do that at mid-point. But I kind of think — I’ll just throw this out here.


Imagine if somebody said to you, “Hey Tim, guess what? You’re immortal.” Your first reaction is going to be like, “You’re kidding me? Man, this is incredible. You mean I’m going to live forever?” “Yeah, you’re going to live forever.” “What do you mean forever? Like forever.” Then you try it, right? You survive, it’s like that movie Groundhog Day. You try and kill yourself and you can’t, you keep waking up, it might be kind of fun for a while and then what happens?


Then you come to the realization, “Oh my gosh, being immortal is like being damned. Because I never change. Everything around me changes and dies but I stay the same.” That could be an all is lost moment too when your lead character discovers that her McGuffin, the very McGuffin that this crazy villain really wants, she would willingly give him.


Like, “Sure, if I could just hand you my immortality I would because immortality is damnation.” That could be a really cool climactic moment that ties in with the internal maturation of, “Oh my gosh, my family’s never going to be the same again.” The maturation of the internal genre and the external genre that the McGuffin is not all as cracked up to be, it could be a really nice thing.


[0:35:59.4] TG: Could it be that she basically — I’m trying to think. I feel like there’s examples of this. She basically turns herself over and is like, “Look. Just take it.”


[0:36:12.3] SC: Not a bad idea. Because that’s a big — you know why I like that? That’s innovative, that’s an innovative moment where the hero quits, the hero seemingly quits like, “Dude, you want my immortality? Here. Here I am, I’m knocking on the door, come take it.” That’s kind of an innovative twist and it’s also as we talked about a couple of weeks ago, you’ve decided to end this story positively, which I think is a good — I mean the external genre, you’re going to end positively.


That means, the beginning of the story has to begin negatively. Your inciting incident of your global story does begin negatively, “Hey, your brother’s in trouble, come help him.” That’s a negative inciting incident. So at the end of your beginning hook, you’re going to want to end that positively. The positive ending of your beginning hook will be something where, “Hey, come on in to the extraordinary world, come on, the water is warm, it’s going to be great.” So she gets to go to the extraordinary world, positive.


Now, that means that the climactic moment, the ending of your middle build has to end what? Negatively. What’s a good negative ending for the end of your middle build but for the hero to literally quit. “You want my immortality, why didn’t you just say so? Here it is, what do you want me to do?” Then, you can transition into this moment while they’re trying to take her immortality from her, she realizes that this is the last guy she’s going to want to make immortal.


So she’s going to have a crisis moment where she realizes, “Man, I just made a huge mistake. I can’t let this guy take my immortality because he’s horrible. If I do so, it’s going to ruin it for everybody I care about. And people I don’t even really care about.” So the hero will have to sacrifice herself which means damnation in order to save other people. If she denies this bad guy, immortality, then she is sacrificing herself for the greater good. It also gives you an opportunity.


This is why we love vampire stories so much, this is why we can have 3,000 sequels to a vampire story because vampire le stat right? The guy never dies. He’s damned. So if you make your lead character immortal, her pursuit, and it could be a really interesting idea for a series of novels is her pursuit is to find a solution to her immortality in a way that’s organically good. But we’re talking in generalities here, but I think you can see the curves of the story grid as I’m discussing this. You can see the rise and the fall and the rise and the fall.


[0:39:38.4] TG: Is it true, it’s almost like if you look at that as a wave, the rise and fall, is the internal and external genre almost like they’re kind of rising and falling opposite of each other?


[00:39:48.7] SC: Exactly, it’s like a sine, cosine curve.


[0:39:51.4] TG: Because that’s where my wife’s been hooked on the show in Nashville which now they just decided it’s going to be cancelled and finally, half way through this last season, she’s like, “I’ve got to stop because nobody is ever happy,” which is just how they do dramas but that kind of scene, now I am starting to understand why they do that. Whenever something good happens here, they counter balance it with a bad thing here and whenever that swings back positive, the thing you thought was positive is now swung negative.


[00:40:27.7] SC: Yeah, no coincidence.


[00:40:30.0] TG: Right. I’ve always felt like those stories, soap opera type stories are so hand fisted with that stuff but it still works and it works on me. If I am sitting on the room I’m like, “Well now I’ve got to know what happened and I hate this show.” You know?


[00:40:49.1] SC: Yeah, it’s sustained careers for 25 years.


[00:40:52.6] TG: Okay. So one thing that — I feel like it’s starting to coalesce because my goal when we’re done with this episode over the next week, I’ll work on a foolscap and send it to you and then we’ll dial it in next week. So I wanted to be able to actually fill this thing out. What I’m still a little unclear on is the personification of the villain because we keep saying, “The villain wants this, the villain wants this.”


In my first draft, my goal is to trade a series so I couldn’t have her overcome the main villain in the first book so I kind of chose this side villain and I got that from Harry Potter where each book, Harry would overcome the villain but it was not Voldemort until the end, spoiler. So I’m thinking that way here of like, “Okay, well if my goal is to leave this open to a series, I can’t have her bring down the entire government at the end of this book.”


So the villain can’t be this President Snow, right? That was his name in Hunger Games I think. He didn’t get taken down until the third book. Anyway, so I’m trying to figure out is the villain — here’s what I am thinking: if the brother is like a servant type person like I was saying, his boss whoever that is, is the villain and he’s not in charge of the government but he sees if he can steal my hero’s power, he will be able to become the guy in charge.


So that’s where he’s a villain and he’s part of the top 1%, he will still drive the beginning of the book because him wanting her power and he feels so fortunate because her brother works for him. So not only has he figured out the power but he can use her brother to get it. That’s where I’m at.


[00:42:59.7] SC: I think that there’s only one thing that gives me pause with that is that it’s very, as they say, on the nose. You’re not setting up and paying off any big jolts and revelation in the revelation of the villain and one of the things to think about in terms of creating your villain is to think about those that you trust the most that you don’t even really think twice about their having any ulterior motives.


You did this in your first draft by using the mentor as the one who transforms into the villain at the end and that can often work if you don’t give away your cards too — remember that I told you that writing this kind of story is a lot of poker playing, because you don’t want to give away any big payoffs too soon and there’s any number of ways to do it.


One of the great things about thrillers, and I have written about this before, is that thrillers are very popular because what they do is they give specificity to our own amorphous panic and what I mean by that is that in our society today, there’s so many things that we can’t control, we don’t understand what’s happening and it’s just overwhelming at times.


So the purpose of a thriller is that it really narrows down a focus of something that can be overcome. If you can figure out what is the thing today that would be most upsetting to learn and you could see this in the evolution of thrillers. Back in the 1960’s there was this paranoia about your spouse.


There’s this great horror film, Rosemarie’s Baby, where the spouse of the woman turns out to be the enemy, the villain, the guy who sells his child and his wife to the devil in order to get professional success and then it became like The Babysitter. Do you remember that movie? The nanny or whatever.


[00:45:25.8] TG: Yeah, I know what you’re talking about.


[00:45:29.1] SC: Yeah, so if you can figure out what would really knock people for a loop, could it be your brother, maybe it’s the brother? Maybe the brother is playing victim in order to transform into the villain, that’s a possibility especially if you decide to go down the road of him playing the role, playing the part of the fuck up brother right?


The brother who seems to always be in trouble and, “Oh here I am, I’m so helpless. Can you help me out because I am just,” — and then it turns out that this guy isn’t as helpless as he makes himself out to be and there’s nothing worse, I think, than being conned. When you’re conned like if you were walking down the street and somebody who’s well-dressed and he says, “Somebody stole my wallet. I need a dollar to get on the bus. I need to get home. I will mail it to you if you’d give me your address,” and you go, “No forget it. Here’s the dollar.”


And then 25 minutes later, you see him hitting somebody else up for a dollar and then you’re like, “Oh I fell for it. I hate myself!” So if you can figure out a way to have that brother be so perfectly characterized as somebody familiar that we all know as the brother who messes up all the time and to discover later on in the climactic moment, “Oh no he wasn’t that stupid. He’s been playing you your entire life and in fact, he’s perfectly happy to rob you of your immortality for his own evil ways.”


That can be an interesting revelation. I’m not saying that’s the solution but what I’m offering is a way to think about how you can make the revelation of the villain pay off with a gut punch to the reader like, “Oh my God, I didn’t see that coming. I thought it was that computer guy. Oh it’s not? It’s that guy? You’ve got to be kidding me! Oh man, I’ve got to keep reading.”


[00:47:40.2] TG: Well I still have to set up — if I’m going to do a reveal of the villain late, I have to have a fake villain through the thing because I have to establish the villain from the beginning, right?


[00:47:54.3] SC: You don’t necessarily have to clearly establish it. This is the great thing about writing and about the intelligence of readers today. You can let the reader assume that the villain is somebody, right?


[00:48:10.5] TG: Right.


[00:48:11.5] SC: So you don’t have to set it up so that it’s really clear “this is the villain”. Just have that person behave like somebody working in a corporation or whatever. You’re not necessarily villainous but their action seem like they’re out to get you.


[0:48:31.0] TG: Like Snape in Harry Potter?


[0:48:32.4] SC: Exactly.


[0:48:34.1] TG: But so I still have to have the character that is the villain.


[0:48:37.7] SC: You have to have conflict of course, yes.


[0:48:39.7] TG: Right, okay. ‘Cause you’re saying like, what are we most afraid of? And I know as a parent and then today’s society, us parents go kind of nuts with this. We’re constantly afraid that somebody we trust is going to take advantage of our kids. So to me, if I was to setup the villain, it would be — well that’s what I liked about turning the mentor in my first draft is I wanted to set him up as the one that looked like he was constantly protecting her. But we realize at the end it was to get his own gain. Did that work at all in my book or was that too on the nose or?


[0:49:23.6] SC: It was a little bit telegraphed, you know? Another thing to think about. I’m just throwing this out here is, that thing about worrying about somebody else taking advantage of your kids, right? I can totally relate to that. What about this? What about a parent who is so mono maniacal that they want to take advantage of their own child. Now, I’m not saying in a physical way, I’m saying, if you establish — and one of the great things you did in that first draft was establishing that very strange family dynamic.


You have this father who is sort of walking on egg shells and protecting the mother because she’s so damaged and sad, right? She’s so sad. Wouldn’t it be interesting to make that so sad mother that really shitty person in this story? What I’m saying and I’m not trying to — I’m just trying to give you to think of different alternatives that are close and yet surprising. So if you present her like you did in the first draft of your book as this very sort of fragile being that everybody is afraid to upset. Then you discover that she’s been manipulating every single person in that family to serve her own purposes. She is orchestrating all of this from behind the scenes.


In fact, she had this daughter and once she discovered this daughter, because suspected that she and her husband would be able to create an immortal being. She’s living a lie, right? Maybe she’s a lot smarter than she seems. Maybe she’s the one who is the big reveal that is like, “Honey, there was no way I knew that you were immortal until I was able to put you through these things. Now that I know for sure, now I’m afraid I’m going to have to take your immortality darling.”


[0:51:31.3] TG: Would that reveal be at the end of the middle build or like right at the end of the book?


[0:51:38.0] SC: That’s a good question. I think that’s enough — that’s a solar plexus kind of blow that could really make this girl say, “You know what? No, no. I came back, I was going to give the immortality to the Xerox corporation and now that I know that Xerox corporation is you mom, fuck you, I’m not going to do it.” That could be a great revelation that will say, “Oh she’s got to stare down her mother.”


Psychologically it’s interesting too because on a psychological level, there’s all these family dynamics at play and it’s also a maturation plot, don’t forget that, it’s maturation. It’s discovering that your parents are not perfect people, that’s part of growing up is understanding your parents are human beings, they are not all mighty gods. Until you understand that they can make mistakes, you will never ever, ever get out of your strange cotton candy world.


[0:52:46.5] TG: Okay. I think I have what I need, I’m going to…


[0:52:50.9] SC: I’ve got a big thing to talk to you about next week so that I think this is a really good place to stop.


[0:52:55.9] TG: Okay. All right, let’s stop here and we’ll finish this up next week.




[0:53:01.9] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. As I mentioned during this episode, we have some cool stuff coming over the summer so you’re going to want to stay tuned for that. We’re going to be talking through publishing, there’s a couple of really great conversations with Steve Pressfield around his new book. You’re really going to enjoy it and Shawn and I are going to enjoy taking a couple of weeks off as we do some traveling and I work on my second draft.


For everything you want that has to do with Story Grid, you can get that at If you missed any past episodes or want to look at any of our show notes, that is at Thanks as always for continuing to listen and share it with your friends, we really appreciate the support and we will see you next week.

7 comments on “Your Brother is in Trouble…We Need Your Help

  1. mlibdoyle says:

    “A bad art teacher who makes you paint a bowl of fruit?” Yikes! As someone who finds this entire series – frustrating feedback and all – energizing and inspiring, I was taken aback by the listener’s email. I suppose there are some writers who are content to write for “an audience of one,” so feedback becomes a moot point. But most of us want to eventually ship our work and find readers, hence Shawn’s succinct declaration that “nobody wants to read your shit!” Thanks for doing your job Shawn to keep the “insidious little bastard” of Resistance at bay while teaching us how to construct a workable story!

    Love the new website – looking forward to the remaining posts and to the new series! As always, thanks to both of you!

  2. michael777stephen says:

    Wow, the changes…

    So, this episode really had me thinking for a few days.

    Shawn, I hope you have time for a couple questions. I’m confused about two things.

    One, LitRPG. You’ve taught me (us) that genre matters, the obligatory scenes, conventions, these are important.

    So, the RPG in LitRPG stands for Role Playing Game.

    A LitRPG novel has as an obligation: a VR-MMORPG as the story world. That’s what the RPG stands for.

    Just like Monkey’s Raincoat and LA Requiem are both crime thrillers, but not both serial killer novels, two books can be science fiction>cyberpunk, but one can be LitRPG and one can just be set in a virtual world.

    As such, your examples, like Ready Player One, are not LitRPG, it’s a cyberpunk story. It’s used as an example of “what a LitRPG is like” because it’s a best seller and people have a better chance of knowing about it than any of the actual LitRPG books that exist.

    So, Tim’s WIP, as described, is not a LitRPG, it’s a cyberpunk.

    Side bar: If Tim would like to study LitRPG, and I think it’s well worth checking out, then he’d have to read some best sellers and understand the concepts like Tank, DPS, XP, leveling, dungeon instances, healing, buffs, alliances, races, classes, and guilds as these, and a ton more, are conventions in the sub-genre LitRPG.

    I’m basically designing a video game to write my novel into, so it’s not a genre for anyone that doesn’t want to do extensive world building.

    I’d be glad to help if you all want to consider this direction.

    NOW,,,,,thing two….

    When you were helping me a year and a half ago in this here blog, you posted that I should read certain books. And I did, like Marathon Man and Sleeping with the Enemy.

    The reason: know your genre.

    So, what books have you recommended or would you recommend for a dark-noir type thriller in a cyberpunk sub genre that has a 10 year old protagonist?

    I can’t think of any, but that doesn’t mean they don’t’ exist, obviously. Still, I watch movies and read a lot.

    I wonder, if you were agenting this thriller with a pre-adolescent hero, what would you compare it to when trying to sell it? It seems like a hard sell to me.

    Think about the fact that 10 year old hero’s generally (or always) appear in children’s literature.

    Now, let’s think about great characters that are pre-teen, ten or so, in great stories.

    Lucy comes to mind. Now, imagine that she wants to save her brother, Edmund, the screw up of the family, the black sheep.

    Lucy says, “Take me, strip me, shave my head, beat me, spit on me, mock me, and then stab me with a knife until I’m dead.”

    I don’t think the reader buys this. 10 year old girls don’t self sacrifice like this, nor would we want them too.

    How does C.S. Lewis handle this? He has Aslan (Jesus as a Lion) step up for Edmund and he is shaven, beat, mocked, spit on, and murdered (and yeah, it’s a children’s book this is found in, one of the most loved of all time).

    If C.S. Lewis has the 10 year old girl get up on that alter,,,,,we don’t buy it at all.

    Jim Butcher has a young girl that is about to be sacrificed by the Red Court,,,what’s he do? Make the 10 year old the hero? Hell no, the mother gets on the alter and the Vampires murder her. Adults sacrifice for children, that’s the way it works.

    Imagine Man on Fire, the alcoholic shell of a man played by D. Washington, after he saves the Dakota Fanning character (about 10 or 12 maybe) he goes off to be brutally murdered. He exchanged his life for hers.

    Would you buy an alternate ending in which Dakota Fanning grabs a gun out of her mothers purse and runs across the bridge and shoots the bad guys and sacrifices her life to save Denzel?

    No way….

    None of us want to live in a universe in which 10 year old girls become the martyrs, we want them to be saved by hero’s.

    One of the genre conventions of a thriller is that the hero is willing to die, they face the darkest hour and are willing choose to become a hero that could very possibly die.

    Expecting readers to buy that a 10 year old girl is mature enough to do this, and I mean at 10, not when she’s matured and is 16 or 20….is too much. It’s not believable.

    If I’m wrong, there should be examples. Perhaps there are, but in children’s lit, of which I’m not a big reader, but I do know that in dark techno thrillers in a cyberpunk world there aren’t 10 year old girls in any books or movies I’ve ever seen as self sacrificing hero’s. We do accept, and love, 16+ female hero’s, for sure.

    Imagine the scene in which Katniss stands up to sacrifice herself for her younger sister and tell me if you’d buy that scene switched around….

    What if the little sister said, “Wait, Katniss, even at 10 years old I’m perfectly capable of thinking through the ramifications emotionally and spiritually of being the martyr here, so quit interfering with the Call to MY Hero’s Journey. I’m going to fight.”

    Nobody would buy this. Well, maybe someone would, but we’d hate Katniss for allowing it. And honestly, if S. Collins had a 10 year old go into the ring of fire and beat all the champions,,,I don’t think the story sells at all. It’d read like satire.

    Anyway, I don’t want to beat a dead horse here, but I think something has to change, if the hero is a 10 year old, then Tim has to write into the children’s lit section and he has to give up the graphic violence and cussing and he has to make the quest believable for a 10 year old child.

    If he wants to write a dark techno cyber punk story, the hero must be at least 16 years old. Hunger Games, Divergent, Twilight, True Grit, and a lot more great stories would not work with a 10 year old.

    My opinion, of course, but it’s based entirely on what you’ve taught me, so if I’m wrong here, I’d like to know where I’ve lost my way.

    Thank you, as always, I love learning from you and you guys are doing an awesome job.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Michael,

      Here’s the thing about the writer/editor relationship.

      The editor must not overwhelm the writer while he/she is recovering from a flawed first draft. So do you have extraordinary points here? Absolutely and I would agree with most if not all of them. But is a human being capable of listening to a 100 page list of everything that they’ve done wrong and/or are possibly doing wrong as they flail around trying to gain purchase in the vast ocean of global story editing?

      Absolutely not. You will crush his spirit and he’ll freak out.

      Editorial bedside manner is something I learned painfully over the long haul of my career. In early days, I would nail the writer will all of my brilliant insights into what his story lacked and of how he failed on numerous occasions etc. etc. etc.

      Guess what? 10 times out of 10 the writer threw up his hands. He either had me fired as his editor (And boy was I indignant and pissed and ready to spew bile about how stupid the writer was for not listening to my brilliance) or he stopped working on the book completely. Regrets…I have a few…

      Now that I’m not out to prove how smart I am any more, I’m willing to be more squishy. I’m willing to go with a writer’s grasping on to a hold on his book that may not prove seaworthy over the long haul…but the hold will keep him going. Keep him working. It will allow them to breath and raise the energy to grab a 5 gallon bucket and start bailing out the water in his leaky story boat.

      Maybe Tim’s book isn’t strict LITRPG. Maybe it’s not Cyberpunk either? Maybe it features a 16 year old. Maybe a 10 year old. Too early to say.

      My job as his editor is to keep him in the ring…fighting Resistance’s best body blows while cupping his ear to listen to his inner genius/muse who is desperately trying to get him to focus on something important to him.

      Lastly, the other comment today about mashing up genres is oddly applicable here too. I maintain that if the internal genre is the dominant force in the work, the writer can fitz around with the conventions of his/her external genre choices.

      The Oligatory Scenes of the External and Internal however must be delivered. So if the book is at its core a thriller (which I think Tim’s is even though it has elements of Cyberpunk and LITRPG) it must have the hero at the mercy of the villain scene and it’s controlling idea must concern the sacrifice of one for many. So this is why READY PLAYER ONE, as you wisely point out is not strictly LITRPG but has elements of it and would be more clearly defined as Cyberpunk, met a wide audience’s expectations without completely alienating the LITRPG market. And a technically flawed thriller/crime novel like THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO still worked too…even though he did not abide all conventions. And the Harry Potter books, which broke the major convention of YA literature by being extraordinarily long…worked. And worked extraordinarily well.

      The thing is that the more tightly you cling to conventions and popular executions of obligatory scenes without having a clear and forceful story spine, the more you may fall into a trap of creating a terrific machine that makes story ice. There are plenty of ice machines out there. And strict genre fiction are well oiled and entertaining examples. I’m not knocking them. I’m a lover of those if it’s not obvious from my defense of genre fiction.

      But if you can put heart and fire underneath the surface of the external (using the hero’s journey atlas with an Internal Genre plot by plot point route), then an audience will go along for the ride. Even if you aren’t delivering all of the bells and whistles necessary for your choice of external genre.

      Almost ten years ago to the day when I was at the Endeavor Agency, I represented a brilliant novel that I knew was not conventional. Didn’t know it then, but do now that it was a LITRPG masterpiece. But guess what? LITRPG was not on any of the Big Five’s radar screens in 2007. It probably still isn’t. Every single editor I sent it to read the whole book (I knew because they went nuts for the global climax) and thought it was something extremely interesting and even commercially appealing if the right word of mouth campaign evolved…like those that evolved for READY PLAYER ONE, GIRL WITH and HARRY POTTER. But when the auction for the book came, no one bid on it. The reason? The book was way ahead of the wave. It defined an external sub-genre before the obvious market had arrived.

      It broke my heart that no one acquired it at the major houses. But I did understand why it wasn’t bought. While the external genre was impeccably executed…there was very little internal story movement. So without an easily targeted and rabidly underserved target market, a pure external genre story is risky.

      Anyway, I’ll say it again. If you want to push the external genre spectrum and explore mishmash combo plates, then do yourself a favor and ground that stuff inside a deeply internal conundrum. Tim’s internal story, the one we’ve been thrashing about has a lot of potential. Because it is mythic and primal. It’s a story about family…how do you honor your family…how do you see the people inside your family objectively…how do you honor yourself at the same time…what do you do when what you think is important in your family turns out to be a lie…what do you do if your family doesn’t share the same values that you do? This is a deep deep thing that every single person contends.

      If he can pull off (and I’ll do everything I can to help him) that internal arc from innocence (my family’s perfect) to maturity (my family is not perfect and in fact can be downright evil) with vim and vigor…the book will work. Even if he doesn’t nail every single LITRPG trope/convention. The external becomes the candy surface that surrounds the deep psychological center.
      Hope that helps

      1. michael777stephen says:

        Yes, that helps a ton. Thank you.

        I like you guys working out the issues prior to writing a rough draft and that’s what I meant before when I said I preferred to use your work as a vaccine and not an antibiotic.

        Personally, I think Tim would feel more accomplished if he just wrote a simple thriller, a boiler plate, no complexity, but workmanlike. When I did this, after your advice (or my take on your advice back in January 2015), I felt like a million bucks and didn’t go through all this anguish.

        21 days, 70K words, done. No anguish. Is it any good? Who cares…


        The thing is, I never felt this sense of hopelessness and frustration Tim expresses.

        I just followed your advice and copied the conventions. Like making cookies, or as you said, I made shaved ice. But I finished a novel, and felt awesome about it.

        But, different strokes, everyone has to make their own path, for sure.

        Thanks again, Shawn, I know you care deeply about this stuff and you’re breaking new territory doing this out in the open.

  3. Tony Levelle says:

    One of the most difficult and rewarding of the Story Grid podcasts. Tim is attempting to master this stuff at 30x speed. Maybe 15X is reasonable… 5X? 10X? Who knows. Part of the reward for listening to this series is learning what works, and the pitfalls along the way with Tim.

  4. davidsmcwilliams says:

    I just want to say, Shawn and Tim, that I appreciate these podcasts so much and please keep going! These discussions are helping a TON with my own WIP, even though I’m not writing in the same genre at all.

  5. Shawn and Tim, I’d like to echo Michael’s words. Thanks for breaking new territory out in the open. This experience is fascinating and beyond valuable, like nothing else “out there.” I can’t thank you enough, Shawn, for offering your free services to all of us and Tim, for being such a brave guinea pig. Here’s to more great podcasts and posts!

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