What does studying psychology do for a writer? I can’t begin to tell you how important this auto-didactic education is to creating believable/sympathetic characters. Especially the antagonists…
In this Story Grid Podcast episode we discuss the work of Sigmund Freud and his star pupil/turned rival Carl Jung as a means to get a handle on the motivations of villains and heroes in action stories.
To listen click the play button or read the transcript below.
[0:00:00.9] 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 soon is Shawn Coyne, he’s the expert. He is an editor with 25 plus years’ of experience. He created the Story Grid, he wrote the book Story Grid, and in this show he is helping me to stumble through and figure out how I can tell a story that works.
In this episode, we really start looking at the psychology of the characters in our books. What each one of them wants, the power interaction between each of them and diving into making sure the motivations for my characters are exactly what they should be. Most of the time these intros are only about a minute long, but I want to stop here and talk a little bit about something that’s been on my mind since we recorded this episode.
This is the first episode that I got noticeably frustrated with the process. I was getting frustrated with Shawn, I was getting frustrated with myself. This entire process is driving me a little crazy. But in the middle of this as well, I’ve been learning a lot about the idea of deliberate practice. Now, I can’t dive into that very much. The original idea was made famous by Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers about the 10,000 hour rule, how you have to practice something for 10,000 hours to become world class at it. But I’ve also been looking a lot into the research behind that idea and one of the biggest things that pops up is this idea of deliberate practice.
Now I really encourage you to go out and look at what deliberate practice really is, how it is defined, and how it can really make you better so much quicker at any skill. But when it comes to what Shawn and I were doing, one of the biggest things that I’ve learned about deliberate practice is the idea of a fast feedback loop. What that means is, as soon as I do something right or wrong, I immediately get feedback on it. Now you see this showing up in sports, and learning music, or learning an instrument, or any other kind of skills that the best way to get feedback is as soon as you do something wrong, somebody points it out to you and you can correct it.
Now, with writing a lot of times it’s different, we will write an entire manuscript before we get any kind of feedback on it and when we do, the feedback is often vague. That’s the opposite of deliberate practice in two ways. One is you don’t get immediate feedback and the second is that the feedback is vague. Something like Shawn and I talked about l like, “Oh this story doesn’t work. I didn’t really like the middle part of that story.”
What I’m doing with Shawn is a much tighter loop where I immediately get feedback on my ideas, I immediately get feedback on scenes and it’s really helpful in that I feel like I’m progressing but it’s also extremely frustrating. There’s nothing quite as frustrating as constantly being told you’re doing something wrong but it’s also the way that you learn the quickest.
So I just wanted to preface this episode with that and really encourage you on your own with your writing to learn about what deliberate practice is and how you could apply it to becoming a better writer on your own. You don’t want to write for months and months or years and years without getting feedback from an expert and finding out what you’re doing wrong.
You want to find out what you’re doing wrong as quickly as possible so that you can immediately change it. But, as you’re going to see in this episode, you have to be ready for some frustration. When you’re living constantly at the edge of what you know and what you don’t know is constantly being exposed to light, it can be frustrating, it can be intimidating, it can embarrassing, especially in my case when thousands of people are listening to me struggle through this as well.
So as you hear my frustration in this episode and you hear Shawn give me such direct and quick feedback, keep that in mind that that’s what both Shawn and I are shooting for, is this idea of deliberate practice, helping me become a better writer much faster than most people can become better writers. So keep that in mind as we dive in to this week’s episode. Let’s get started.
[0:04:44.9] TG: So Shawn, I’ve been thinking through my homework. I’ve been thinking through setting, you told me to think about power and especially in this kind of lit RPG world, I’ve got my copy, I got a paper copy of Ready Player One, I’ve started working on the Story Grid for that and thinking hard about what this would look like.
I’ve also been thinking about where I would work best in this because when I start thinking through an RPG world, I much more understand the programming hacker kind of nature of the world more than the gaming side. I think we could do something similar that feels very much the same without the kind of gaming aspects of it.
Anyway, I don’t know, should we jump in to what I’ve landed on or have you been thinking more about the action genre and stuff you kind of want me thinking about?
[0:05:51.0] SC: One of the things that I think is very important to kind of just crystallize in your mind before you go step by step solving a lot of problems. It’s almost psychological research in a way. We’ve talked about the action genre and that there is four sub genres and then there’s four even sub-sub genres of action and that’s in my book and stuff and people have talked about it a lot. But what you kind of come down to when you’re looking at action is power, it’s a struggle for power. What I think would be an interesting to do now is to just think about how societies and how institutions and how small groups, how that power dynamic kind of works.
When you’re trying to build a villain in an action story, I highly recommend that you think about power because the villain in an action story is usually trying to control the environment, it’s trying to control a particular part of society. Like in Hunger Games, you have this tyranny that is using — it’s using television and entertainment as a means to quell and keep the population placid and doing what they’re supposed to be doing, right?
[0:07:27.4] TG: Yeah, in that movie that came out last year. Mad Max Fury Road, it was all about controlling the water.
[0:07:38.2] SC: It’s all about control. So when you’re thinking about action stories and you need to create a villain and you need to create — say you have a dream of eventually creating a trilogy of novels or whatever. One of the things to think about is the hierarchy of power. Meaning, the first thing you have to establish is that the villain has to be far more powerful than the hero. The villain has to be almost indestructible because you want to create a real chasm between — because we all root for the underdog, right?
Whenever they have the basketball, the March Madness, everybody’s so excited when the 16 seed knocks off the number one seed. I don’t even know if that’s ever happened. When the 12 knocks of the five or the 14, because we’re always rooting for that hero against a very large powerful organization. That’s exactly what drives so much of the narrative in Hunger Games is that you have this young girl who is 16 years old against this totalitarian regime that keeps everybody very, very under control.
So when you’re talking about an action story, you think about power structures and how the villain wants to control the world, the society, the group, the whatever it is that the setting is that you’re exploring. Back to the nature of power; what do some tyranny’s use to keep people under control is classically like in the Hunger Games, they use entertainment right? They use our need and our desire for a dopamine fix. And if we look at our world today, what do you see? You see dopamine fix after dopamine fix, right?
You’ve got your phone in your pocket and they’ve done the neurological studies and every time you click and you get an email, a small little dopamine rush hits your brain, which distracts you from whatever it is that you were supposed to be doing in the first place. We have online streaming of video, libraries of movies and television shows and on and on, and on, and on. You have YouTube. Any moment that you want to distract yourself today, it’s easy to immediately jump into that distraction pool and keep yourself from having to deal with, “Oh my gosh, I don’t know if I’m ever going to make my rent this month. Oh why don’t I stream a movie and I’ll deal with that after that.”
So one of the things that I think is appealing about this lit RPG up and coming genre, it’s the literary role playing game genre. It hasn’t really even surfaced as a genre although there had been some very big books like Neuromancer by William Gibson, like Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson, like Ready Player One that you’re reading and thinking about now. Those are all books that fall within this realm.
They’re all about the distractions of technology on the population. When I read your novel, I was thinking, “Oh well he’s set up a situation where there’s a very powerful force that our hero is confronted.” Now, she’s a little bit distracted because you didn’t set up a victim at the beginning of your story but I think if you do progress and you think about a victim and we use a classic way of funnelling people into a story and setting up her brother as the victim and she is sort of has to go out and save him, that you can build into the reality of the setting whereby — and I understand what you’re talking about in terms of the gaming world.
I think it’s kind of interesting that you’re kind of, you’re on the hacking side of software more than the generation of the online gaming world. That’s interesting to me because when you’re trying to enter a new genre, or an established genre in fact, what you want to do is bring something fresh to it. A doing another — creating another online world where your protagonist is called to go into and sort of jack into a kin to the Matrix or Ready Player One or Snow Crash any of those other novels that’s familiar but it might be a little bit too familiar.
So anyway, I know I’m talking in generalities right now but the prime things that we have to think about in the action story is number one, the villain. The villain and the hierarchy and that villainous world is really what’s going to drive the narrative for your reader. And I think you’ve already setup a pretty solid protagonist where she is absolutely vulnerable. She is very intelligent, but she is really, really naïve.
She doesn’t seem all that powerful at the beginning because you decided and I’ve been thinking more and more of it that the big reveal of her “specialness”, her gift, you decided to not reveal that until mid-point of your novel and I think we can work with that to make that work in a way that could be really extraordinary. Anyway, I’m rambling on and I think I’m getting off track. So do you have any questions that you want to focus me on?
[0:13:42.5] TG: Yeah, one is, I’m to the point where I almost feel like I want to take the first draft that I wrote and put it on the shelf somewhere and say, “You know what? One day I may come back to that.” Because I feel like every time I try to take this special power of coming back from the dead and put it into something else. I feel like I’m just forcing it.
Let me tell you kind of what I’ve come up with and where I’m at and maybe you can help me poke holes in it. I started thinking hard about, when I think about Ready Player One or Hunger Games or these types of things it’s always this kind of dystopian, everything fell apart and now people are just trying to survive. What I was thinking was, the power struggle will be over electricity. Because all of the fossil fuels have disappeared, all the ways that things are transported, all the ways that we stay connected to the world through travel have become hyper, hyper expensive, because the only way to do it is with electricity and the government now controls the electricity.
So I was trying to think of a way to make everything become hyper local, where the only way to break outside of the little town that you are living because you can’t travel, you can’t go anywhere is through this online world that’s created. Everybody’s hooked into it and the government controls it by like letting little sips of electricity out and letting people access it and if at any time, something goes wrong, they pull it all back and everybody’s completely cut off from the world because you can’t get anywhere. Let me stop there.
[0:15:37.8] SC: I like it. I think establishing something that is parallel to contemporary life in a slightly dystopian way but using the same social and cultural world that we live in now is exactly the way to go. I like, just as an example, when you said that people are becoming more and more localized, I think that’s absolutely true. So if you look at the newspaper of late, you’ll have read a lot of stories about the TSA and the TSA is an organization that controls people going through airports.
The big crisis over the past couple of weeks, in the front page of the New York times is, “Oh my gosh, we can’t handle the number of passengers anymore, people are waiting, having to wait three or four hours,” right? So there’s something interesting that you I think have identified. I think what you’re trying to do is a good idea, is to think of the global universe in which this world is you’re going to set. I like the fact that it’s going to become a place where people don’t really travel anymore.
[0:16:58.5] TG: Yeah, my thought was it does two things for me, one is it makes it easier to control the people because they can’t go anywhere form where they’re currently at, it also collapses any kind of like I can’t order paper online anymore. I can’t get manufactured goods as easily.
So everybody’s just kind of using the stuff that’s been laying around for 20 years but they can’t get anything new, which again forces everybody to use this new online world that’s gotten even bigger as the only way to create anything as the only way to communicate with people. Like if they have family on the other side of the world, they never ever get to see them except through this online world.
Whoever controls that online world, and there’s all this stuff in the media for years now about who controls the internet and what kind of — are we going to let big companies get faster service? All those kind of things. Whoever controls it, if the only access people have to the outside world is through this, whoever controls has all the power.
[0:18:10.7] SC: Yes. I also like it for another reason is that, again another newspaper article recently in the New York times was about the gated community phenomenon where the people who have the wealth in this country have decided that they want to live in gated communities. It keeps people out, it keeps the riff raff out. So you could build a society that has sort of two — it’s like a plutocracy where the very wealthy are the ones who get the special Willy Wonka gold ticket and they pretty much get to move at a much higher, with much more freedom that those who can’t, who aren’t a part of that world? So if you can create two classes of people in a way where you have the underclass, those who are kind of — they’re the ones who take care of this fantastical world and occasionally, they’re allowed to go in.
[0:19:09.2] TG: Yeah, I’ve thought some about that because to me, what I’m going to do is basically fast forward the widening gap, like the disappearing middle class and basically get us to a point where again, the only people that can travel, the only people that can take advantage of this are the super-rich and they are all about keeping their power as well.
That’s the 1% or less than 1% and everybody else is basically just scraping by. So there’s just this huge gap and that’s kind of the power part of it is like who owns the power and it sets up my villain as the government that runs this and keeps everybody controlled by, they’re the only ones that run electricity, they’re the only ones that run the Internet.
They’ll punish places by cutting off electricity, cutting off access, that’s how they keep everybody coiled down and people freak out if the don’t’ have access because 20 years ago or whatever, everybody could go anywhere they wanted and if all of a sudden you’re stuck, the only kind of joy you find is in escaping through this Internet world. So again, to me it fast forwards the whole Netflix, Facebook kind of phenomenon to like an nth degree because it’s truly the only place anybody can find any kind of happiness. It’s the only addiction that matters.
[0:20:38.4] SC: It’s the only place that they can find real community. So a real/unreal community. Your hero of the story, I still think that you can use a lot of the conceptual ideas that you already did in the first draft here and here’s why. Well — go ahead.
[0:20:59.1] TG: Let me tell you where I’ve landed on that because what I’m hoping is, I want to tell you where I’ve landed and let you kind of poke holes in it if I missed some stuff. What I’m thinking off is basically I’m sticking with the brother disappeared thing but the brother disappeared, I’m still a little fuzzy on how but it has something to do the government plucked him because he was this phenomenon and was an amazingly intelligent guy, they pulled him out and they heard from him, heard from him, heard from him, disappeared. I’m kind of thinking in terms of Serenity — did you ever watch Firefly, Serenity?
[0:21:43.1] SC: No.
[0:21:43.4] TG: Okay, anyway, the brother disappears, this is where you said to kind of keep with the family dynamics and so I’m keeping with the family dynamics of the mom completely lost her shit, the dad just does everything he can to keep the mom from killing herself or whatever. But the mom now constantly puts on Jessie that she wishes Jessie had disappeared and not the brother.
There’s all this pressure in that way and so Jessie is younger now and putting her more in like tween territory and so she feels like if she can just find her brother and bring him home, everybody will be okay again. She has become this world — well nobody knows it in the real world but on the online space, she’s become a well-known hacker and she’s basically trying to track down her brother.
So when the book starts, she’s trying to narrow down to a few different organizations that took him where he may be and that’s when the mentor shows up to say, “I know where he is and you’re going to have to break him out.” The only way she can do that is through this internet world, but what she’s been doing up until the beginning of the book is basically saving up and learning how to do all of these things so she’ll eventually have the freedom to actually track down and find her brother and bring him home.
I backed her age up to the tween world because I have a 10 year old and they’re such — it’s this interesting space where he is learning real things but there’s such naïvety to it. To me, somewhere between like 10 and 12 years old, she could be an amazing hacker, like again a phenomenon but the naïvety of “if I just find my brother, my life would go back to normal.”
So it creates this really strong desire because then she’ll be able to save her mom, she’ll be able to save her dad, she’ll be able to save her brother and she’ll have a family again and she can just bring him home. That’s like driving it and she keeps finding traces of him online and that’s the path she’s trying to follow to find where he really is. That’s where I’m at.
[0:24:11.9] SC: Okay, I think I like it, there’s a very nice mystery detective element in there as well with the clues, sort of like little Easter eggs within the online world. Okay, so I think the beginning setup, the inciting incident would definitely work, the thing that we’ve been talking about would work.
[0:24:36.7] TG: Well, I have the first three kind of things lined up. ‘Cause again, what we talked about last week in the episode and especially in the epilogue, I kind of was like, “Okay. I have to start trying to solve this problems on my own first.”
[0:24:52.5] SC: Yeah.
[0:24:53.2] TG: “Then you tell me where I go wrong.” So here is where I’m at, these are kind of the first three scenes. So the first one is I drop you into the Internet world but you don’t know that’s where you’re at. You’re following her character who is completely different from her, she uses a man so he’ll be more respected like an adult man to do all of her work inside of this. You see her breaking in which is basically hacking into these different places. I’m kind of thinking of inception here where all these secrets, because there’s no paper and there’s no paper money anymore, everything is on the Internet.
So she is a hacker that breaks into places to steal secrets and to steal money. That’s the first scene and we see a flicker of her mentor show up that shows up in real life. So the idea there is to drop you into that world and then immediately — and so you get a sense of where she’s at, now that I say it, it’s kind of shit but I’m going to keep going.
Then the next scene is where basically we introduce the fact that her mom’s crazy, her brother disappeared and she loses it and you see this when she loses it on Jessie and knocks her around and basically says, “I wish it had been you and not your brother.” Then the third part is where I thought the mentor that’s been flickering in and out through the last several months in her online space actually shows up in real life, or is that too long of a lead in?
[0:26:39.5] SC: I think it’s too long of a lead in, I think you need to grab the throat of the reader immediately. Your instinct to do a switcheroo where the reader believes that it’s this fantastical online world to begin with and then pulling back to the reality, that’s a good instinct but the key thing for action is to hook and then watch and race to the end, so that you can constantly be setting up things that the readers are going to say, “I know what’s going to happen next,” and then you do the opposite.
So I think the surprise element of no, this isn’t the real world and no, this isn’t a man, this is a little girl that you want to setup in chapter two? I think the reader will be way ahead of you and they’ll figure that out before they get to chapter two. So what I think is, there’s a very primal — and the other things that I would suggest is that you never ever, ever have the mother say, “I wish it was you who were gone and not your brother.”
[0:27:54.7] TG: Yeah, I’ve been thinking a ton about — I went back and read the first chapter of the Girl With all the Gifts and then I’ve been working through the first few chapters of Ready Player One and just trying to get cram into my head how to string this stuff along and show — it’s just going to take learning it basically how to do that.
[0:28:20.7] SC: Exactly, the other thing you have to think about is I think this is a good start but I think what will really help you is to know who the villain is, what do they want, how is this story going to end? Remember, the ending has to be inevitable so that the reader says, “Oh my god, I can’t believe that, I should have figured that out at the beginning,” and surprising, where they go, “Holy moly!”
If we had a setup that says, “Go find your brother, bring him home, everything will be safe.” Then let’s think about a way that could help us pull the rug out from the reader that makes sense at the end of the beginning hook and then transition into the middle build which is the meaty part of the story where she learns the new skill set she has to be indoctrinated into this sort of secret society, before they jack her back in and she has her mission.
Then, how do we make that transition into an all is lost moment that will leave her feeling, “I can’t believe I ever did this, everything is far worse than it could ever be, life for me will never be the same, everything I believed before is a lie and I quit. I have no choice. If I don’t do this, then everybody that I care for will be destroyed and I will never be able to live with myself.”
So that will transition and propel us into the ending payoff where she confronts the villain who is at such a higher level of power than she is, that we setup this incredible hero at the mercy of the villain scene where she is able to outsmart or out power this powerful villain that seems instrumental. It has to harken back to the beginning hook. Meaning, what setup at the very beginning will pay off at the very end.
So if you look at all of that stuff and you say to yourself, “How do I set that up? Okay, it’s a dystopian world that is parallel to our own world today and people can’t leave their communities and it’s this online economic system.” I don’t have the answers to these right off the top of my head but I do think one of the ways to approach it is to think, “What does the villain want?”
Now, what the villain wants is what is going to start this whole thing, the villain always starts an action story because the villain wants something from the hero and he lures the hero into action so that he can take it from the hero. So if we’re thinking about, psychologically, I’m sorry to go on a tiny little bit of a tangent here but I think it will be helpful.
In psychology, there is sort of two ways of thinking about spirituality, innocence. There’s the Freudian way, which believes that every single one of us has deep, dark desires that will destroy us inside of us and it is our job as human beings to understand this darkness and to learn how to control those impulses in a way that will not express themselves. So it’s sort of trying to keep the dark genie in the bottle. That’s the kind of Freudian philosophy. It’s a bit out of favor right now but there’s so plenty of Freudians in the world.
The other alternative and this is a theory that was expressed by one of Freud’s students and they had sort of this falling out because Carl Jung, the Jungian, he believes, and he believed and then expressed that each one of us was not born with these bad things inside of us. We have all kinds of things inside of us but the most important thing is we all have a special gift. We were all put on the earth to do something and we all have something inside of our souls that must be expressed and it is our job as human beings to find that center of gift, that goodness and express that and give that gift to the rest of humanity.
So you have the Jungian versus the Freudian point of view, and obviously if we’re talking about a villain who does not believe that anybody has any gifts inside of them but that they’re all really dark people deep down and that they must be controlled, that would setup a really strong tyranny of sorts. It kind of makes sense because we all have dark impulses. So the Freudian point of view is not outrageously inconceivable to us and we probably all have moments in our lives where we would say, “You know what? Everybody sucks. Life is terrible, I’ve never met anybody who is not out for themselves, who doesn’t want what’s good for them and will do anything in their power to get what they want at the expense of other people.”
That’s my Freudian dark negation of the negation. So if you have that attitude and say you’re a villain, then you would say to yourself, “Oh, let me twist my mustache and keep all these stupid people under control.” No, you would say, “These people need control, they require control, they want to be controlled, and I, me the villainous power, have figured out a way to do that in a way that keeps them docile and happy. I give them community and love in a virtual world. The real world must be under tight controls and restraints so that this society can work.
So those people were more enlightened and more powerful will arise from the soup of humanity. Those who are intelligent enough to help me keep the rest of these idiots under control, I need to find those people because I may not live forever. So I need to find those people with the gifts who can help me create this virtual world in a way that will be so convincing to all the idiots that they’ll keep staying in their little Hamlets, they won’t leave the Hamlet zone and they’ll go and they’ll jack into this universe when I allow them to and they’ll feel bliss and happiness. That’s how I can keep them under control. If I can control the switch that will allow them to enter this beautiful world then I can control them.”
But you also have to remember, you have to keep the beautiful world going and if this is one person or two person or a committee or Star Chamber or whatever you eventually decide it to be, that villainous force has to have a really, really, really good point. Because in every action story and in every thriller, you want to have a moment where the villain gets to state their piece. They get to say to the reader, “Hey, let’s face it, people suck, people need to be controlled,” and you know what? This is a convention, I’m not just making this up.
[0:36:23.3] TG: Yeah, we’ve talked about that before, yeah.
[0:36:26.2] SC: You’ve got to make that really believable and actually so believable that the reader goes, “Yeah, they have a point. You know, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to have to live in this virtual world? Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad. I don’t like traveling anyway, I don’t like going through the lines and being frisked and there’s terrorists all over the place, it sucks.”
So if you can setup a villain that doesn’t think it’s a villain but it is a villain because if you have a Jungian kind of point of view and I think to walk around with any kind of humanity today, you do have to have a Jungian point of view. Whether or not you believe in a specific religious spiritualism, the Jungian point of view is all inclusive in a way. It’s sort of like religion does state that there is a real purity to the soul, there is a soul. It’s a belief that there’s something deeper and more important than one individual person, there’s a soul on each of us that contributes to a collective unconscious, that’s Jungian thing.
[0:37:44.0] TG: Okay, do you want to…
[0:37:45.4] SC: So before you solve the problems of scene one, scene two, scene three, I think it’s a good idea to think about, “How is this thing going to end?” It doesn’t mean you have to solve the scene but you need to know that your heroine who is 10 years old, is going to like Ender in Ender’s Game, it’s going to somehow save her family, her Hamlet, her something. We don’t need to specifically know it now but she is going to save, she is going to — the way she will do it, she will sacrifice herself, everything that is about her, for the good of a collective.
So when heroes sacrifice themselves for the greater good, that is the control. Life goes on with goodness and that is the story, that’s an action story, the hero sacrifices him or herself for the greater good and that’s why it’s such an important genre because it tells each and every one of us, we have to offer something for the rest of the world. We’re just not here for ourselves. This is a timeless myth that has to be retold over and over and over again in different ways that rip the heart out of us.
Anyway, that’s why this is an important story for you to work on, this isn’t just Tim goofing around. This is stuff that’s important and you’re — inside of you, something inside of you created that character and wrote that first draft and what I’m doing here as your editor is telling you, “This is the arena of the world that is really, really important to you.” So we’re building piece by piece a universe that is yours and yours alone in which you can tell that story your own way.
[0:39:54.3] TG: Okay. So as you’ve been talking, I’ve been trying to form some of this in my head. I think it should end with what I think is her brother ended up getting pulled into this higher society where he has access to everything and it’s because he’s such a genius and they needed him. But he is also underneath leading the charge to bring the government down. The thing that kicks it off is the fact that Jessie, because she’s so young was sloppy and they found her. So her brother send someone to rescue her and the end of the beginning hook is the fact that her brother isn’t lost, her brother isn’t the victim at all, he’s the one that’s been driving the upheaval against the government in the first place.
[0:40:59.3] SC: That — let me think.
[0:41:00.1] TG: You said the villain’s got to kick it off so the villain kicks it off because Jessie gets sloppy and they figure out who she is and they send people to…
[0:41:09.4] SC: Well why would they want her?
[0:41:11.5] TG: Because she’s been breaking the law, they’ve been after this hacker for a long time and they finally figured out it was her.
[0:41:17.5] SC: Remember, the villain wants something very specific from the hero, the villain is the one that gets the thing moving. The villain just wanting to incarcerate somebody for hacking into the mainframe doesn’t make sense, and I’ll tell you why. How would this villainous force find the gifted? Do you think they would find the gifted through IQ tests or DNA testing or whatever? Probably not. The way they would monitor the universe and see…
[0:42:00.3] TG: They would setup traps to find them.
[0:42:02.6] SC: Yeah, they would setup these very, very complicated game like — not game like. They would want to find the great hackers and so this young girl is just a kickass hacker right? You could do one of two things. You could have them come and arrest her, right? Say, you’re under arrest for breaking Zed/Stroke13 of the Hamlet-esque rule book, you have to come with us and so she’s arrested. That’s kind of in the interesting idea but…
[0:42:40.6] TG: Then could they give her a choice? You could come work for us or you could go to this really horrible place that we send people like you. She tells him to go screw themselves basically and that’s when the rescue steps in to get her.
[0:42:57.9] SC: I think you also need to rethink the brother and I’ll tell you why. I think thematically, in terms of families, this is a great thing about storytelling. It’s that it’s a Russian doll within a Russian doll within a Russian doll. Thematically, a family faces a couple of crisis in its life. One of the crisis is when the child wants to get the hell out of that family and they want to do better than the old man did. They don’t want to live in a suburb of Pennsylvania and own a hardware store.
They want to go to New York and they want to be the biggest kickass advertising executive in the United States. What happens? They do and guess what? They completely disconnect themselves from their roots. There is a literal, they don’t call anymore, they don’t come home, this is what New York attracts, right? This is what major metropolitan areas attract. People who are so ambitious that they want to break away from their class. I grew up in an era where there were very distinct classes and the lower middle class and the upper class and the intelligencia, these were all very specific places for a person to aspire to.
Today, it’s more and more difficult to know who and what’s what and what’s important anymore. But I think your story provides an opportunity to set something up that could be pretty interesting. Where the brother is not the golden child, the brother wants nothing to do with that family. He hasn’t really disappeared, he made it, he got the hell out of there and the mother is concocting this fantasy in her mind that he didn’t leave of his own volition. He left because he was kidnapped. He was kidnapped because he’s such this good person and this great thing and this other kid of hers is just a loser, she does terrible in school, she’s never going anywhere, if only my real son would come back. The longing for the prodigal son return and return to the family.
So him being the leader of the resistance doesn’t make sense to me because he likes the fact that he made it, he likes being part of that 1%. The last thing he wants to do is lead a resistance against the thing that he aspire to. He busted his ass to get there. So if you think of that psychologically then you can say to yourself, well maybe it doesn’t make sense that he’s this heroic figure? Maybe the villainous force recognizes an opportunity. “Hey dude, we’d really like your sister to come aboard here. Do you think you can get her to come?” “I don’t know, I’m good, thanks.”
“Tell you what, if you don’t get your sister to join and become a really great villainous hacker for us, we can see you later buddy. You’re out.” That sets up a crisis in that guy and I’m talking all about back story here. In that brother, he’s going to say to himself, “Oh, what do I do? Do I do what’s good for me and copt my sister to join them, it would be good for her too, get away from that stupid parents of ours and that shitty community. That could be good for her right? Or do I tell them to go fuck off and go home to Shitsville and work at the Shitsville plant?” What do you think he’s going to do?
He’ll concoct some kind of story in his head that will allow him to stay where he is and then he will somehow figure out a way to get his sister to come in. So sending somebody to the house and saying, “Your brother’s in trouble, he needs your help.” To that little girl will be like candy right? As you discussed at the very beginning, her desire is to get everybody back together again as a family so that mom doesn’t think she’s an asshole. “Can’t we all just go back to the way it was when brother was here and mom was happy and dad wasn’t trying to manage mom and somebody actually paid attention to me every now and then instead of the way it is now which we have this ghost in the family and all my mother does is clean the house and act like a zombie and my dad is Mr. Chipper and wise?”
So what you have is you’re setting up something that has an inciting incident that’s interesting. Because it’s saying, there’s a victim, you are the only one who can help him and you need to leave Shitsville to come into this world that you’re scared of. Then, you don’t reveal the brother’s true nature until the end of your beginning hook.
[0:48:24.8] TG: Okay, here’s my question. As specifically as you can, why does that work and my version doesn’t? I’m really not being like — I don’t know, I don’t want to be combative about this but I’m kind of getting — I’m not…
[0:48:41.1] SC: I get it.
[0:48:42.7] TG: I’m not trying to hold on to my own ideals but I’m like, “Oh that sounds great, it sounds just as good as what I came up with to me.” Like I don’t understand the difference. What levers are you pulling, what knobs are you twisting in your version that I wasn’t in mine?
[0:48:58.4] SC: Okay. Number one, I’m subverting conventions and innovating conventions in a way that haven’t been done before. Of course they’ve been done my way, I’m not saying that they aren’t the reason why I think it’s important to load all this psychological sub text underneath is because, to have another book about the resistance to a bad villainous organization, there’s going to be a lot of people who are going to be looking for, “Oh okay, the brother’s good and he’s going to be the hero. Oh the brother’s the victim so if the victim can become a hero, the victim can’t become the villain.”
All right. The reason why I’m doing and the way I’m picking at it is to come to that universal revelatory truth that is the climax of sort of the hero’s journey. Which is the revelationary moment. That thing we were talking about the Kubler-Ross curve in Story?
[0:50:05.2] TG: Right.
[0:50:05.5] SC: The Kubler-Ross curve, at the end, there comes that moment where all is lost. Meaning, everything that one thought was the truth before has now been changed irrevocably. The truth, what this young girl believes at the beginning of the story has to change by the end of this story, because what you’re setting up is a hero’s journey action story where the hero must sacrifice herself for the benefit of the larger community.
You just don’t do that unless you change a change of view of the world. Whether you know it or not, you have embedded your story with an internal plot, an internal genre. You have to make sure that the internal genre in your external genre are not clashing.
[0:50:57.1] TG: Okay.
[0:50:58.5] SC: So if you setup this young girl as the hero at the beginning right? She heroically goes into this world to help her brother, then we discover that the brother’s a hero and that she is going to subvert herself to another heroic force. She’s the hero, the brother’s not the hero.
[0:51:21.5] TG: I see.
[0:51:22.7] SC: Don’t ever forget who your freaking hero is.
[0:51:26.0] TG: All right.
[0:51:26.7] SC: You’re adding a hero, we already have a hero. We’ve got one hero, don’t get confused. The brother cannot be the hero, the brother is a pawn in the villain’s game. The brother is setup as a victim, once he gets the girl into the world, then he becomes a mentor and then he transforms into a villain. Because he’s going to help indoctrinate her into the world. Now, there’s probably going to be other mentor figures, there’s not only just one mentor in a story like this.
There’s usually a number of them. There’s Obi Wan Kanobi, there’s Yoda, all kinds of — there’s Han Solo. All of this people served as mentors to Luke Skywalker. He didn’t just have one mentor. The same thing for your heroine. She needs to have multiple mentors and maybe the brother becomes the mentor at the beginning after she “saves him”, but I’m getting ahead of myself. The reason why my version is better than yours is it does never ever do you want to make your hero subservient to another heroic force.
[0:52:45.5] TG: Okay. So we have one hero, the hero can never change, the victim can change, the villain can change, but the hero is always the hero?
[0:52:56.4] SC: Well I look at the hero as the force of change, the force of good, the person, the being that will have a revelation at the end of your middle build. Right just at the all is lost moment. When all is lost, is when we change, right? I realize, my publishing company, Rugged Land, was just not going to work anymore, I had to change.
[0:53:25.5] TG: Okay.
[0:53:26.3] SC: I couldn’t stay and continue Rugged Land because it wasn’t going to work. So I had to change, I had to change who I was and I had to become a literary agent. I’m sorry to use a personal reference, but I think it’s important to think about these moments and our own personal lives when we’re telling a story. Because I can relate to that, “Holy shit, I can remember that day I had to change.” I was staring at a bunch of bills, I had two kids under three years old, I had to get a job man, I couldn’t be precious. That’s what you want to setup for your hero.
[0:54:03.2] TG: So is the middle build like I’m picturing, the hero has one foot on the boat and one foot on the dock and they’re slowly getting further apart. The all is lost moment is where she’s at a point where she’s got to pick one?
[0:54:19.9] SC: No, no. The middle build…
[0:54:24.3] TG: I’m so lost.
[0:54:26.5] SC: No you’re not lost.
[0:54:27.0] TG: I feel like everything I come up is so far off the mark that I’m just like, “ I don’t know how to do any” — okay.
[0:54:36.3] SC: You’re talking about an analogy there and it could be — yeah, I mean, that analogy works intellectually in terms of her world view. Her world view, she’s clinging to the old ground and she’s got another foot in the boat and she’s eventually going to have to get all of her ass in that boat. Yes. She has to leave that world but that’s also a metaphor for the transition from her ordinary world to this extraordinary world.
That moment happens when she accepts the hero’s call and she agrees to go try and save her brother. That would happen at the end of the beginning hook and then she goes into this other world and then she has to learn a whole new sort of skill set, she has mentors who teach her certain things, she faces rivalries and progressive complications, what she think she’s really good at, she’s really not. She discovers things that were skills that she didn’t think she had.
[0:55:48.8] TG: So when she gets there, at the end of the beginning hook and realizes her brother’s not in trouble, her brother’s brought her there.
[0:55:58.3] SC: I don’t think that she needs to realize that until, that could be — this is the other thing, don’t overdo the major plot points. The big twist at the end of the beginning hook, you need to have a big moment and the big moment could be something like she somehow gets to the place where her brother is suspended animation or something, I don’t know. But I think her realization about her brother and her family and the way she is supposed to move up in the world and how that is bull shit, that has to happen at the end of the all is lost moment.
The brother reveals himself to be a coward. He is not willing to give up his stuff in order for anybody else to move forward and she has to make a choice, “Do I stay with my brother or do I go against my brother?” Then that would transition in to the final show down against the indomitable villain that we haven’t really figured out yet, unless it becomes her brother. I don’t know, or it could become — I don’t know. I mean that would be a great thing to know.
[0:57:26.0] TG: Wouldn’t the force, the villain be whoever made her brother make that choice in the beginning?
[0:57:33.9] SC: Yes, yes, which brings up the McGuffin as we always…
[0:57:40.0] TG: Remind me what the McGuffin is?
[0:57:41.9] SC: The McGuffin is the secret sauce that the villain really desperately wants. While the villain is on the lookout for really bright, smart people to come into the fake world and make sure the machines work, the villain wants something else. The villain wants something that he knows that girl has. That nobody else has.
[0:58:09.3] TG: Well my thinking was, she would be able to transverse this digital world that they’ve created in a way that nobody has ever come close to. And so they want her so badly to be able to come in and have her power work for them instead of against them.
[0:58:31.5] SC: That is interesting but it’s a little bit, I don’t really get it. She transverses, what? If it was something far more primal, which I’ll spit it out, I still like the resurrection idea. I still think…
[0:58:49.3] TG: How does that work in the digital? I don’t know how that transverses into the lit RPG, everything’s happening online. Everything that matters is happening in this digital virtual space.
[0:59:05.5] SC: Right, what happens when the founder dies? The founder, if you create it, okay, let’s just say your mono maniac who is the genius, your Donald Trump meets Mark Zuckerberg right? You’re the genius that figured out this whole thing, this whole power structure. You’re getting old, do you want to die? If you die, you lose control right? Not only that, you think, if I die, the world is definitely going to shit right? Everybody’s horrible…
[0:59:41.9] TG: This is your legacy as you saved the world.
[0:59:44.9] SC: Yes. The villain wants to save the world by keeping the powers that be. He wants to stop change, he wants to defy death. What is death? Death is change. You’re alive and then you’re dead, that is a change. It’s a transitional moment in every human being’s life and every living thing on this planet. It’s alive and then it dies and then it either falls into the ground and it becomes part of the earth again and then grass grows again and then the grass dies. So if this villain refuses to die, he refuses to change. If this girl has the power not to die, he’s going to want to take that from her. More than anything.
[1:00:36.1] TG: Oh and that’s when her brother gets plucked out of middle management and becomes special because…
[1:00:42.7] SC: Because she won’t die. If you die, here is the theory that you could setup early on in the story. If you die in the virtual world, you die in the real world. They find her because she dies in the virtual world but she wakes up in the real world. She does not die, that’s how they find her. She’s the only one who has not died in the real world after she’s died in the virtual world. It’s like that old thing in dream. You ever heard of this? “If you die in your dreams, you die in real life.”
[1:01:20.0] TG: Right, that’s why you jerk awake before you hit the ground.
[1:01:22.6] SC: Right. She doesn’t know it, she has a gift, it’s actually damnation but she doesn’t know that. Because I think, to be immortal is to be damned. It is the negation of the negation of life and death, it’s the fate worse than death, which is damnation. What is damnation? Never changing. You never get to die, do you know what a horrible damnation that would be? We all worry about death, we all want to solve death but if you don’t die, you’re not part of the natural world. You might as well be a machine.
[1:01:59.5] TG: Okay.
[1:02:02.9] SC: So if the McGuffin is the villain has discovered this young girl has not died and she should have been dead 20 times, he’s going to say, “Let me get that girl, get her over here. Take her out of Shitsville and bring her into the 1%.” They’re like, “Well, we really can’t do that see, because there’s this law that you setup and can only have one trans,” — make up something. Make up something about the universe that makes sense.
You can only have one transitional person from Shitsville into the good world one time. So her brother moved into the good world and he lives in the 1%. Her family, their quota’s up. They’re like, “We can’t really do that because her brother’s already here.” “Oh I got it, let’s arrest the brother and say he’s under arrest and then we’ll send Jimmy Smith who will go and knock on her door and say there’s the only person that can save this brother is you, come with us,” and then she’ll say, “I don’t want to.”
Think like a villain for a minute, how are you going to get her there and you can’t break the laws, even though it’s a tyranny, the people believe in this bullshit right? If you break the bullshit laws and you’re the president. Say president Obama decided to just, “I don’t like Paul Ryan anymore, he’s out.” He can’t do that, he’s the president but he can’t do that because there are rules right?
[1:03:38.9] TG: Okay.
[1:03:40.4] SC: You’ve got to make up rules for this universe.
[1:03:43.3] TG: All right, so what should I be working on for the next week, that’s what I always want to end with, is like, “Okay, you’re the teacher, give me homework that I can turn in next week.” Because I feel like, here’s what I feel like. Every single thing I come up, you’re like, that doesn’t really work and I’m like, “Well dammit.” Which is fine…
[1:04:03.8] SC: You wanted to learn how to write in one 30th of the time as pro’s right?
[1:04:10.0] TG: What did you say?
[1:04:10.2] SC: I said, you wanted to learn how to write in one 30th of the time as the professionals do. You know what the professionals do? They write a whole freaking manuscript using your idea and they submit it to agents and the agents go, “No thanks, something about it just doesn’t work for me.”
[1:04:30.1] TG: Yeah, I don’t mind that you’re shooting down my ideas, the problem is — no, no, no you’re not hurting my feelings as much as like…
[1:04:37.5] SC: Here’s what I want you to do, I want you to come up with just very bulleted points, okay? The villain wants this. The hero has this. This is what the villain will do to get what the hero wants. The villain will create a victim in order to lure the hero into his web. Ultimately, the villain wants to take the gift from the hero and then just fill in the details of what I’ve just talked about so that you know how this is going to begin and how it’s going to end. You know it’s going to begin negatively, “Your brother is in trouble, come help him.”
[1:05:30.2] TG: Okay.
[1:05:30.8] SC: Right? It’s going to end positively. Not only has she saved her brother, she saved her family and maybe her whole Hamlet, maybe the whole damn thing, who knows?
[1:05:42.7] TG: So what if I took that and I did your whole thing where I got to come up with six different answers, six different versions or 10 different versions to kind of cut through all of the crap? What if I did that?
[1:06:00.1] SC: It’s a great idea because what it will do is it will — the other thing to remember is, remember when you asked me, “Why was my thing not good and yours was?” And I answered it by saying, yours transferred power of her heroism to a third party. You can’t do that. So when you’re looking at your stuff, you need to say to yourself, “Is my hero always the hero?”
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t other people who are helping, that nobody is as heroic as your hero. She has to be the queen of hero’s in the story. Nobody can ever subvert her. Her mission has to be extremely clear. Her mission is to save the victim. If she stays the victim, she will get what she wants, that’s all you need to know about the hero. She wants to save the victim. You’ve already setup that the brother is the victim.
So I think the primary drive of your story is her attempt to save her brother in this alternative universe. What she’s going to discover is she’s either going to save him or she won’t save him. Chances are, she’s going to save him but her life is never going to be the same. She’s not going to return things to the way they were, she’s going to make them worse but she doesn’t know that.
[1:07:30.0] TG: Or will the other scenario is, she saves the world but loses her brother.
[1:07:36.8] SC: That’s another possibility.
[1:07:39.8] TG: That’s always, they always have to — she either gets what she wants but loses something she didn’t know she wanted or vice versa.
[1:07:46.8] SC: See, I think she gets what she wants but what she discovers is the truth about herself, which is she’s damned and then you’re setup for a sequel. She gets what she wants, she saves the world but then she discovers she’s fucking a immortal.
[1:08:02.1] TG: Yeah, that’s what I was thinking was, she’ll learn at the end, she’s not just immortal in the digital world, she’s immortal in the real world too.
[1:08:09.1] SC: Exactly, exactly. Then you’ve got an immortal figure who you’ve set up on — you can set her up on another hero’s journey. “Why am I immortal? What’s going on?” You know what I’m saying? I think, that is a very interesting climax of your entire story. She discovers in that climactic moment with the villain that she is immortal both in reality and in the virtual world and the villain is not. The villain can survive the virtual world maybe because he’s so smart, but he can’t survive the real world.
[1:08:47.6] TG: Maybe that’s the beginning of the ending payoff, is he does steal from her the ability to survive the digital world?
[1:08:56.9] SC: Right.
[1:08:57.7] TG: I don’t know? I’ll work on that.
[1:08:58.3] SC: Maybe, but what we’re talking about is really juicy meaty stuff. I know right now, your brain seems like you’ve got this big soup of stuff and you don’t know what to do with. The great thing about becoming a writer and becoming a storyteller and thinking about this stuff is that what you’ll discover is that sometimes just letting that stuff marinate in your brain, without grinding on it, what it will do is it will give you things that you never thought possible.
It will, and Steve Presfield talks about this. It’s like, the universe self-organizes and I think our brains do the same thing. You don’t know it but somehow that stuff will start to coalesce and it will become more and more clear to you and ideally what you want is just a really solid road map for your next draft. Where you’ve got your foolscap global story grid, you’ve got the major points going and then you being you, you’ll probably chart out your scenes.
The next iteration of this story for you is going to be a major leap forward because you’re dealing with the very deep realities of the genre conventions and obligatory scenes and you’re dealing with the deep psychological under pinning’s of the hero’s journey in a way that’s exciting to you and it all came from you.
[END OF EPISODE]
[1:10:27.4] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid, you can go to storygrid.com. Make sure you sign up for the newsletter, read the blog, you won’t want to miss everything that is available at the website. If you missed any past episodes or want to check out the show notes, all of that is at storygrid.com/podcast.
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