J. Allen Wolfrum is a fiction author and former Marine based in San Diego, California.

 

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How I Use Story Grid - Writing a Scene

How I Use Story Grid - Writing a Scene

Before I get started, I want to be clear, I am in no way associated with Shawn Coyne, the creator of Story Grid or Tim Grahl from the Story Grid podcast.  The work they’ve done with the book and the podcast has been immensely valuable to me and I want to share how I’ve used their work in my writing process.

If you haven’t done so already, check out the Story Grid book and the Story Grid podcast.

Alright let’s get to it.

By far the most influential lesson I’ve learned from the podcast :

The Scene is the fundamental building block that an aspiring writer needs to master.  

Those might not be Shawn's exact words but they’re close.  I remember listening to Shawn say it on the podcast and the message immediately resonated with me.    At the time I heard the podcast I had not yet started writing.  This statement was one of the stepping stones I used to muster up the courage to start writing.  My thought process at the time was; if I can write a scene, then I can write sixty scenes and if I write sixty scenes, I wrote a book.  Yes, I’m totally ignoring the other story structure concepts but for me it was a starting point.  Learn to write a good scene and build a story from there.

What’s a Scene and how do I write one?

A scene is 1,500 to 2,000 words and it contains the Five Commandments of Storytelling: an inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis (a decision that must be made), climax (the decision that was made), and a resolution.

Planning the Scene

When I sit down to write, I have one goal for the day, write a scene.  Before I start writing I outline the scene.  I literally write down the 5 Commandments and fill them in with a decent amount of detail.  I label them with numbers 1-5, 1 is the inciting incident, 2 is progressive complication, etc.  It's not always pretty as you'll see below but it gets me thinking in detail about what is going to happen in the scene.

5 Commandments Outline Example

It isn’t pretty but this is a copy/paste from the Notes section of Scrivener for Chapter 3 of my next book.

1. Brad meets with his contact inside the Lab. He's an admin assistant, doesn't know exactly what's going on but something is happening in 30 days.

1. General LeMae walks out of the grocery store and finds an envelope on his windshield.

2. The envelope contains a simple message and a flash drive. It looks like the flash drive he hid in his Idaho Cabin. The message reads "you're on the right track. Anderson is rattled. Time is short.

3. Does he investigate himself? Tell Susan (President Turner)?

4. He goes straight to Ariana Redmond. He does this because it might be nothing. and doesn't want susan involved..or it might be huge in which case he has to do something. He doesn't want to stick Susan with the problem. The right place is FBI. Ariana will do something. He tells her that he's concerned about Pacific International's involvement in last year's incident with the Soviet Union. They have been pushing their influence around the world and have recently acquired three biological research companies. The owners of those companies are all tied together.

Commandment #5 is missing from my notes because I wasn’t sure what was going to happen so I left it blank. And I have two Commandment #1's.  

Writing the outline made me realize that I was trying to do multiple things in this scene.  So I had some problems to overcome and if I'm being completely honest with myself, I'm not convinced I solved them in the best way.  The full scene is below, you can judge for yourself.  Would the ending scene pass Shawn's "work/doesn't work" test?  Mehh, probably not, but it's the best I've got at this stage of writing the first draft.

I’m a Writer not an Accountant, this is too formulaic. Where’s the creativity?

This method isn’t going to resonate with everyone.  From my perspective the 5 Commandments outline is the pre-work for writing a scene.  It starts the creative engine and gives it a direction and some rules.  For me, when I write the outline, I try to put in just enough detail to get me thinking about the characters and raise the more interesting questions.

For example:

1. Brad meets with his contact inside the Lab. He's an admin assistant, doesn't know exactly what's going on but something is happening in 30 days.

Based on this inciting incident in the outline, I still need to figure out who Brad’s contact is inside the lab, where they meet and what he tells Brad about the plan.  At this point I only have a cloudy notion of what “the plan” is, so I need to figure what Brad’s contact actually saw.

Still plenty of creative decisions to be made

Brad’s decision to contact General LeMae happens off the page.  The reader finds out after General LeMae has already decided to contact the FBI Director Ariana Redmond and the decision that happens on the page is that Ariana Redmond decides to assign FBI Agents to the case.  

The reason I made that decision is that the protagonist is one of the FBI Agents assigned to the case.  This scene is in the beginning hook and I’m trying to get the protagonist into the story as soon as possible but I need some backstory first. The story will kick into another gear once the protagonist makes it onto the page.

All of these decisions I made could be done in a different way.  And I have no doubt there are many other more interesting ways to approach the story but this one is mine.

When I finish this book, if I gave another writer the Global Foolscap and 5 Commandment Outlines for every scene in the book and they used those documents to re-write the book, it would be completely different than my version.  Maybe better, maybe worse, but most definitely different.

Outlining and planning do not take the creativity out of writing.

The Scene that came from the outline

Below is the raw and unedited scene that I wrote based on the outline above.

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Brad Turner met Keith in a crowded San Francisco coffee shop.  

Brad sat down across from Keith and abruptly began the conversation, “breaking our meeting protocol is dangerous.  What’s so urgent?”

Keith shook the table with the nervous bounce in his left leg.  “Something is going to happen on May 31st.”

Brad increased his focus, “What’s going to happen?”

“I don’t know.  But every project deadline in the lab got bumped up to May 31st.”

Brad leaned forward, “Have you seen any new people in the lab?”

Keith shook his head, “No.  They don’t let me anywhere near the experiments.  I told you before, I don’t even know what they’re doing.  I’m just the accountant.  The Doctors…well I think they’re Doctors … they look nervous, like they’re not sleeping.  Then when I was told to change all the project deadlines to May 31st … I don’t know.  I just thought you should know.  Something isn’t right.”

“Understood.  You did the right thing by reaching out.  If you see anything else out of the ordinary let me know.”

Brad got up from his chair and left Keith alone at the table with his coffee and untouched blueberry muffin.  He walked back to his hotel room and sat down at his laptop.  He pulled up the files from General LeMae’s flash drive.  May 31st was only twenty nine days away.  In his previous analysis of the files, nothing indicated that Jack Anderson and Pacific International were close to an end game.  The files showed the exact opposite, a very carefully planned network of connections that took over two decades to construct.  Two questions kept recurring as he combed through the files from General LeMae’s flash drive, What is Jack Anderson planning?  And why May 31st?

 

General LeMae sat by himself in a conference room inside the FBI headquarters building.  He opened his briefcase and set a plain white envelope on the table.  He stared at the envelope and silently rehearsed the pitch in his head.  Thirty seconds later the door opened and the Director of the FBI, Ariana Redmond walked into the room alone.  General LeMae caught a glimpse of the two FBI Agents who escorted her to the meeting.  Before saying a word or acknowledging his presence, Ariana flipped two switches on the wall.  The first switch blacked out the windows to the conference room.  General LeMae assumed the second switch either turned on audio and video recording equipment in the conference room, or turned it off.  Both were reasonable.

General LeMae stood up, walked towards Ariana Redmond and extended his hand with a smile, “I don’t believe we’ve met … Curtis LeMae, nice to meet you Ma’am.”

Ariana Redmond showed no expression on her face, she shook his hand, “Ariana Redmond, nice to meet you.  I’ve heard a lot of good things about you from the Pentagon and the President.”

General LeMae chuckled, “That’s very nice of you Ma’am, you must have ran into my fan club.”

Ariana Redmond let a smile creep out from the corner of her mouth, “Must have.  But that’s not why you asked to speak with me.  What would you like to talk about?”

General LeMae took a deep breath and they both sat down at the conference room table.  “For the last few years, I’ve been looking into connections between the CEO of Pacific International, Jack Anderson, and several foreign governments.  To this point, the work has been done completely off the books.  It started as just a hunch.”

Ariana Redmond prompted him, “OK, so I assume you have more than a hunch or else we wouldn’t be talking.”

General LeMae raised his eyebrows, “It’s more than a hunch but definitely short of concrete evidence.”

Ariana Redmond gestured for him to continue.

“Jack Anderson and I were classmates at West Point.  He was a good soldier.  Then his son was killed in Afghanistan.  I don’t know what happened to him, but he changed.  He resigned his commission and went to work for Pacific International.  I would see him around the Pentagon every once in awhile, nothing suspicious.  I kept an eye on him because I would consistently see him with businessmen that had less than stellar reputations.  You know ... the creepy … I’ll do anything for money and power types.  As Jack Anderson moved up the ranks, Pacific International continued to expand.  The types of companies they were buying made them seem more like a Government than a private company.  Does that make sense?”

Ariana Redmond shrugged, “What I’m hearing is … a friend of yours gave up the Army and became a very successful and powerful businessman.”

General LeMae nodded, “Yes, exactly.  I’m concerned because it’s completely out of character for Jack and I don’t understand why he’s doing it.  He certainly isn’t doing it for money or fame.”

Ariana Redmond’s patience wore thin and showed on her face, “I’m not seeing how this is something the FBI should be concerned about.”

“Do you remember the security convoy incident with the Soviet Union last year that almost caused World War III?  The confidential information leaked out of the White House?  The sudden death of Soviet President Rosinski? … all of those incidents are linked back to Jack Anderson.”

“Do you have any evidence?”

“Of course I do, but it’s all circumstantial.”

Ariana Redmond opened her hands in frustration, “General LeMae, I really appreciate you bringing this matter to my attention, but there isn’t anything I can do with circumstantial evidence.”  She pushed her chair back from the table.

General LeMae remained seated and opened the envelope, “Yes I know.  That’s why I didn’t come to you sooner.”

Ariana crossed her arms and remained seated, “I’m listening.”

“I stopped by Jack’s house a week ago as a friend.  I got a very strange vibe from him.  The conversation was cordial but something wasn’t right.  He asked me about my cabin in Idaho.  I bought that cabin four years ago, very few people know about it.  Jack certainly was not one of them.  I know it’s not much to go on but it gave me the feeling he was watching me.  The cabin is one of the places where I hid copies of my research on Pacific International.”  General LeMae paused to catch his breath.  “And yesterday I found this envelope on the driver's seat of my Cadillac.”

He opened the envelope, took out a plain white piece of paper and read the note,

Dear General LeMae,

Jack Anderson contracted me to kill you.  I have been watching you for three months.  I found your research on Pacific International at the cabin near Bayview, Idaho.  Your visit with Jack Anderson scared him.  His eyes have the tenacity and fear of a wounded animal.  He believes you are a threat to his agenda.  He has pushed the timeline for implementation of what he refers to as, The Solution to May 31st.  My source of information on The Solution knows very few details, only that medical doctors appear to be involved and experimentation started sixteen months ago. Jack Anderson needs to be stopped.  I’ll be in touch.

Ariana Redmond sighed, pressed the fingers on her left hand to her forehead and closed her eyes for a moment.

General LeMae cleared his throat, “Also inside the envelope was the flash drive I hid outside my cabin in Idaho.”

Ariana Redmond regained her composure, “You know that you’re putting me in a bad position right?”

“I know and that’s why I came to you instead of President Turner.”

“Again let me recap, what I heard is that there is a threat on your life and the person threatening your life appears to have information about potential domestic terrorist activity?  Is that what you’re telling me?”

General LeMae took a moment, “Yes, it is.”

“Well … that sounds like something the FBI needs to investigate.  And given that there has been a threat to a four star General’s life from an unknown person who clearly has access to Government facilities, I believe the investigation needs to be kept confidential.  I will personally oversee the investigation to ensure information is not leaked to the person threatening your life.”

General LeMae nodded, “Will you be serving as the lead investigator on the case?”

“No.  I have an Agent in mind to lead the investigation.  Due to the sensitive nature of this case, I only want a volunteer.  The Agent needs to understand the risks; physical and political.”

“Understood.”

“The Agent leading the investigation will reach out to you within the next twenty four hours.  Would you like a security detail?”

General LeMae shook his head, “No thanks.  If this guy is as good as I think he is, it won’t matter.”

Ariana Redmond stood up from her chair, “General LeMae, I’m glad we finally got the opportunity to meet.  I wish it was on better circumstances.”

General LeMae stood up and shook her hand, “Same.  Thank you Ma’am.”

 

Still Relevant After 81 Years

Still Relevant After 81 Years

How I Started Writing - Part 3 of 3

How I Started Writing - Part 3 of 3